Six adult salmon swam tight, languorous circles in a shallow pool along the banks of the Chetco River last summer.
There was nowhere to hide from predators, nothing to eat off the sandy riverbed, and the oxygen was slowly dissipating in the warming water temperature.
That can happen in the warm summer months, said Tom Satterthwaite of the Oregon Department of Fish (ODFW) and Wildlife. He was in Brookings recently to outline a proposed plan addressing the Chinook salmon that call the area home.
The plan was drafted because fishing is vital to the local economy, existing management plans were lacking and there will be challenges facing the rivers – and fish – in the future.
Considered within it were the populations and management of them; what citizens want from fisheries; how fishing affects the local economy, and challenges faced by the fish.
The committee created six alternative plans and narrowed it to two; the Oregon Wildlife Commission will choose what it thinks is the best option. That decision is expected early next year.
The chosen plan will not affect state regulations or fish management zone regulations.
The proposed plan specifically addresses the Chetco River; another plan addresses the Rogue River.
Presently, the fish are doing “reasonably well,” he said. But there have been problems in the past – and could be in the future.
“One time, we pulled up and started counting the carcasses,” Satterthwaite said of a jaunt up the Rogue River in the late 1970s. “There were 400 dead adult Chinook. Someone said, ‘Look at all those $100 bills, going belly up in the Rogue.’ ”
That die-off was an anomaly – blamed on a bacterial infection that killed 80 percent of the salmon before they could reach spawning grounds.
Both Chetco and Rogue river fisheries are doing well, Satterthwaite said.
“There is a 99 percent chance that these populations will persist in the next 100 years,” he said of the genetic line in the fish. “It is much better than in other places – some of which have even given up restoration.”
And information collected during the creation of the plan gives biologists a baseline from which to address issue in the future.
The baseline includes such things as the fall and spring Chinook salmon population, age and health; water flows and temperatures and hatchery releases and fishery catches.
The Rogue River plan also addressed the effect birds and pinnipeds – sea lions and harbor seals – have on those fish populations.
Based on the data collected, future monitoring will let scientists know if the salmon reach a “crisis stage,” so they can address it.
The populations in both river valleys are healthy and, combined with those from hatchery releases are adequate for commercial and recreational fishermen.
But scientists are keeping an eye on things that could dramatically change that.
Of utmost importance is the health of the estuaries along the river.
Logs and stumps, for instance, are vital to the success of the fish, as they provide nutrients, shade and protection.
“That’s a big problem,” Satterthwaite said. “Cutting logs for firewood is a pretty popular pastime.”
Another challenge is the water itself.
When flows decrease – as in the case of the 2001 drought – the concentration of fish in the water increases. Algae can grow, decreasing oxygen levels in the water.
Concurrently, the lower flows and subsequent shallower water lead to higher water temperatures.
At some times, the Chetco River can reach temperatures in the 70s; temperatures nearing 80 degreesin the Rogue River were common until upstream-dam officials began releasing more water in summer months.
Notably, water released from the William L. Jess Dam near Lost Creek upstream in the Rogue River includes water allocated for agriculture and municipal uses, but isn’t being used.
If those water rights were to be implemented, flows to the Rogue River would be further reduced.
Scientists will also continue to monitor the low survival rate of smolt that make it to the ocean and the effect of fisheries on the fish that remain.
Carl Page, a fish biologist from Smith River, said he was concerned the hatchery and native fish were interbreeding and thus diluting the quality of the natives.
“I’ve never read anything good about hatchery fish,” Page said. “I don’t think you’ll find a biologist around that’d allow those kinds of numbers (hatchery releases). We have to acknowledge science and stop ignoring it.”
The department stocks its hatcheries with native brood fish to keep the genetics as pure as possible, Satterthwaite said.
And fish caught from the area are easy to genetically identify as native or hatchery fish.
Also, native smolt tend to leave the freshwater estuaries in early fall before hatchery fish are released into the estuaries in October, he added.
This decreases the risk of competition among the two, ensuring a hardy population of native salmon.
Public comment is being accepted at the following locations:
•Mail to ODFW Gold Beach Office at P.O. Box 642, Gold Beach, OR. 97444
•Mail to ODFW Rogue Watershed District, 1495 East Gregory Road, Central Point OR 97503
•Hand-delivered to the Gold Beach office at 29907 Airport Way.
The comment period ends June 30.