The current controversy over whether or not to close the Chetco River to fishing during times of low water is a social problem, not a biological one, according to Russ Stauff of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Stauff told the South Coast Fishermen Wednesday night that chinook stocks in the Chetco are in no danger from the pressure put on them by fishermen when the fish are trapped in holes during low flows.

However, he said there are problems on the holes when too many fish and fishermen congregate during low flows instead of spreading out.

Stauff said those problems may be pertinent, but are no threat to the fall chinook run.

He said fish stocks in the Chetco are managed for a harvest rate of up to 40 percent. With a healthy natural population, supplemented by a hatchery, the Chetco harvest doesnt exceed 25 percent.

If the South Coast Fishermen feel they want to pursue a solution to the problem, said Stauff, they can send a proposal to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.

The commission makes lots of decisions based on social determinations, such as bag limits, and not strictly on science.

He also said his department does not control the commission that oversees it. The department would stay out of a low water closure proposal for the Chetco, because there is no biological basis for it. He said the matter is between the anglers and the commission.

Even when the department does make a recommendation based on biology, such as banning baited hooks on stretches of the Rogue River, the commission can decide the social considerations outweigh it, Stauff said.

Unfortunately, the commission has just completed its public comment period, and it will be three years until the Chetco proposal could be submitted.

Fishermen could also seek an emergency closure, but Stauff said it is unlikely the commission would approve it except in truly dry years.

Fisherman Jim Welter said the Chetco could be left open to fishing below Ferry Creek during low water closures.

He also said the department might consider closing other Curry County rivers at the same time.

Stauff said he wouldnt want to see a low water closure linked to the Smith River gauge, because the Chetco has a gauge of its own.

He also wouldnt support a simultaneous closure on other Curry County rivers. He said they are not as urban and dont have the same problems with overcrowding.

Jim Waldvogel, Sea Grant advisor to both Curry and Del Norte counties for the past 24 years, was on hand to give a little background on the issue.

When fish and fishermen sometimes piled up in certain places during low water years in Northern California, he said, the state started instituting low flow closures, beginning in 1988.

When he surveyed fishermen in 1990-91, he found 89 percent backed those closures.

When the California rivers were closed, however, fishing pressure increased on the Chetco. That led Waldvogel to do a Chetco survey in 1993-94.

At that time, 83 percent of anglers on the Chetco supported low flow closures. More than half of those thought the river should be closed above the U.S. Highway 101 bridge.

He said if the commission did approve closures, the department would have to figure out at what level to close the Chetco.

Stauff and Waldvogel said that snagging fish is illegal, and enforced by the Oregon State Police.

Stauff advised fishermen to get as much information as they could on someone snagging and turn it over to the police.

Line-brushing, said Waldvogel, is harder to prove, though it is not legal to keep any foul-hooked fish.

One fisherman asked if it would help relieve the pressure to have a one-fish-a-day limit. He hoped fishermen would leave after catching one fish, opening space for others.

Waldvogel said they could still hook and release all day. In his experience, compromises dont work with social issues, though they can with biological issues.

A low water closure would be easier to enforce if no one was supposed to be fishing, he said.

Dick Sutter, president of the South Coast Fishermen, said the board of directors would hash over the proposal at their December meeting.