Continued Wild Steelhead Killing Approved in Oregon

As you have probably already heard, on Friday the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife Commission voted 5-2 to continue to allow the killing of wild steelhead on some southern Oregon coastal rivers. I spent much of the day on Thursday and Friday with the Commission meetings playing in the background while I did my “real” job and have a few observations I would like to share. I would have voted for catch-and-release only fishing, as 2 commissioners did, but I don’t think there were any good or bad guys in this vote. It was a reflection of how ODFW is run, how information is presented to commissioners, and most importantly, how different types of anglers perceive wild fish.

There is an inherent conflict within ODFW between conservation and exploitation. As pointed out by some guides, anglers, and the Deschutes River Alliance, ODFW receives significant funding from license sales and limiting catches in any way may negatively impact those sales as well as the economic livelihood of some in the fishing industry. Many others testified for increased protections. Further, as pointed out by David Moskowitz of The Conservation Angler, ODFW is supposed to err on the side of conservation when balancing lack of species abundance and continued exploitation. Unfortunately, ODFW does not follow this rule until populations reach crisis levels. License sales are the primary motivator.

ODFW told the Commission that wild fish populations on the southern Oregon coast can support continued harvest of wild fish. Others testified that ODFW does not have the data that would support this conclusion. ODFW proposed a plan to acquire that data and taking action if warranted in the future*. This is exactly backwards in my view. Shouldn’t we first be certain that wild fish returns on these coastal rivers are sustainable? Given that steelhead on the entire west coast are in jeopardy, shouldn’t we err on the side of being conservative until we are certain these rivers can sustainably support harvest?

Which brings me to the fundamental issue: the different ways anglers view their relationship with fish. Are we stewards of the resource or harvesters? Do we value healthy ecosystems that deliver wild, native fish in abundance or do we believe that we can engineer abundance with hatcheries and factory fish?** As anglers, what is our relationship with nature? Do we believe that our environment is healthy and in a natural but temporary cyclical period or are we living in a period of rapid, disruptive, and long term environmental change?*** Of course, the science that answers these questions is clear.

I do not fish for steelhead to harvest a meal, although I am happy to put a hatchery fish in my smoker if I happen to catch one. For many others, killing something to eat is a primary goal. I respect that. What I don’t understand is the need to kill a wild, native fish when the entire species is clearly in jeopardy.

*I am deeply skeptical of “adaptive management”. I have seen it fail too many times as fisheries managers watch populations decline only to react far too slowly. This is happening right now in the Klamath Basin. Not too long ago I testified to the Commission that a small section of a stream that feeds Klamath Lake needs protection as it contains one of the primary spawning areas for Klamath Lake redband trout. ODFW management said this was not needed and literally called me an elitist for suggesting catch-and-release regulations. (Paradoxically, the Commission approved catch-and-release regulations on the Williamson River at the same meeting). ODFW also said they would monitor the situation. Today, the redd count in this stream is approximately half from when I testified. I wish I could say that is surprising.

Here’s another example, which I wrote about here. To summarize, last summer’s steelhead season on the North Umpqua had to be closed due to low returns. It was estimated to be 350 fish, 10% of a 10-year average that is already low compared to historical numbers. ODFW has provided no scientific basis for believing that the winter run will dramatically improve but went ahead and opened the river to winter steelhead fishing on December 1, far in advance of when most winter fish arrive. If ODFW is concerned with fish populations they should wait until they can confirm significantly improved returns before opening the river.

A final example: last summer ODFW waited far too long to partially and temporarily close steelhead fishing on a small part of the Deschutes River due to low returns. These regulations were widely ignored as anglers were suddenly fishing for salmon not steelhead, even though they were clearly using steelhead gear. ODFW waited until a few days before the closure was due to expired before extending them for the entire river for the remainder of 2021. It was clear months beforehand this needed to occur, but ODFW continued to allow fishing for steelhead in most of the river until the very last minute. Again, as I personally witnessed on many occasions, this closure was widely ignored.

The sad truth is that ODFW is actively managing our rivers to minimize angler complaints, not for the long term survival of our fisheries.

**To be clear, I am not anti-hatchery. Hatcheries play an important role in fisheries management. There are many places hatchery fish can safely and productively play a role. There are also many places where they negatively impact wild, native populations.

***In the past 2 years I have heard managers from both ODFW and the Oregon Water Resources Department deny that global warming is real or that we will not experience it for “at least 50 years”.