The Brookings City Council agreed Monday night to craft a letter urging the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to keep current steelhead fishing regulations in place rather than requiring fishermen to release all wild ones as proposed in a petition being circulated.

Currently, fishermen can keep two wild steelhead a day, for a total of five per year. A wild fish is distinguished by a hatchery fish, which have had their adipose fins nearest the tail removed.

The petition to require all wild steelhead to be released is being circulated by local fishing guide Harvey Young of Fishawk River Co., and Jim Dunlevy, Mark Gasich, Dustin Russell and Josh Terry, all long-time fishermen and guides.

But Oregon South Coast Fishermen member Leonard Krug is trying to beat them to the punch in his request for a letter of support from the city.

“(Releasing wild steelhead) will have a huge economic impact on the Brookings economy,” Krug told the council. “Part of (the rationale of the petition) is to decrease the number of Californians who come here. You can’t catch wild fish down there like you can here. And it’s not just the Chetco River, but other tributaries that don’t have any hatchery fish in them.”

The regulation change would also simplify the fishing regulation, Young said. Currently, wild steelhead must be released in certain rivers in the Southwest Zone, which extends from Charleston to the Winchuck River and up all the rivers.

But the East Fork Coquille, Pistol, Rogue, Sixes, Winchuck, Illinois and Chetco rivers, along with Euchre and Hunter creeks, are exempt, although bag limits are in place. Bringing those rivers into compliance with other regulations in the zone would make fishing rules easier to understand.

Young admits it’s odd for a fisherman to advocate limiting catches to hatchery fish.

“We went to people who were born and raised here and they say they see a diminished wild steelhead population,” Young said. “We surveyed some of the guides and they’re going, ‘We need to address this issue.’ People who’re born here, their observations are that there are fewer opportunities to catch. They feel like we need to do something. Things aren’t as hunky-dory as they thought; it’s not as strong as it was 40, 60 years ago.”

Fewer fish

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, many West Coast salmon and steelhead stocks have declined substantially and now are at a fraction of their historical abundance, a five-year analysis update conducted in 2016 indicates.

“There are several factors that contribute to these declines, including overfishing, loss of freshwater and estuarine habitat, hydropower development, poor ocean conditions and hatchery practices,” the report reads. “These factors, among others, led to the National Marine Fisheries Service‘s listing of 28 salmon and steelhead stocks in California and Oregon as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act.”

Krug also said fishermen have “compromised and compromised and compromised” with the state agency, but the number of wild fish allowed to be caught has plummeted, from 40, then to 20, then to one a day for a maximum of five a year.

“The petitioners say if they roll with this, the state will rev up the hatchery fish,” Krug said. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth. They don’t have the money or resources to do that.”

Young says his proposal would not negatively affect the steelhead population caught.

“Everyone wants to catch; not everyone wants to catch, kill and keep,” he said.

“Keeping wild steelhead in the river, rather than in the possession of the first angler who harvests it, will increase overall catch-rates for anglers and increase satisfaction with the fishery, the petition reads. “In turn, this will encourage more steelhead anglers to participate in the fishery, increase license sales and draw more people to … Southwest Oregon.”

City Councilor Brent Hodges, acting as mayor pro tem Monday, agreed, saying, “Most people I know release anyway. Once you’ve caught one, it’s like, game’s over.”

Young cites the Umpqua River, which has regulations regarding releasing wild steelhead. Because they must be released, they provide a second — or third or fourth — opportunity for other fishermen to experience the thrill of the catch.

“I asked some guys who were violently against this release (of wild fish), and they said they’d caught four fish: two hatchery, and one wild that had a hook in its mouth,” Young said. “It had been released by someone else. There’s a big difference between a four-fish day and a no-fish day.”

There are much fewer steelhead on the Chetco, he said, and people throng to fish the Umpqua because of its robust population.

“We’re losing some of our customers on the Chetco because the Umpqua system rocks — even though they’re not killing fish,” Young said. “And they’re catching more fish on the Umpqua because there are more fish in the system.”

Young intends to wind up his signature-gathering by the end of April, then begin a letter-writing campaign. He hopes to be on the ODFW commissioner agenda in late summer.

“I’m putting myself out there, but I’m real passionate about this,” Young said. “I have educated people and these really basic people and they’re all telling me they agree with it. Steelhead are an incredible sport fish. We love them. They’re beautiful fish. And they create a lot of money in this town.”

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