Rogue River spring Chinook salmon populations are plummeting and Steve Beyerlin, a lifelong fishing industry professional, wants something done about it, he told Curry County commissioners last week.

The problem lies with a Lost Creek Dam northeast of Shady Cove in the Rogue River Valley, which was built downstream after the Cole Rivers Hatchery was built in 1973 to restore the dwindling population. Another factor is smolt release dates that result in high predation rates.

Beyerlin blames it on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife agencies responsible for the dam, and the federal laws by which they have not abided in ensuring the structure wouldn’t harm fisheries.

The hatchery, he said, was to produce 13,020 returning adult spring Chinook to meet the requirements. Shortfalls in the past 14 years, however, have resulted in an average shortfall of 63 percent, and wild spawning runs 60 percent below expected levels.

“Wild producing spring Chinook populations are shattered by predictable, but unaddressed habitat issues,” he said in a report to the commissioners. “Wild spring Chinook harvest has virtually been stopped, with huge economic impacts.”

He also said in the ensuing decades since the dam was built, people have forgotten fish numbers must be sustained.

“The ODFW is apparently unaware,” he said. “They don’t seem to see there’s a problem. Over 14 years, you’d think they’d see there’s a problem here.”

In 2016, for example, only 1,900 fish returned to spawn. And in 2017, returns were less than 1 percent.

“These values are far below the desired status identified in the plan of 15 percent, and have dropped substantially from the percentage of spawners at the time it was adopted,” Beyerlin said. “ODFW came up with the 13,020 number, and now they don’t claim it. Thirty-three percent of the fish habitat has been lost because of the dam. The ODFW and Corps have failed to adhere to the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement).”

He said the agencies need to be held accountable.

“The inaction has resulted in higher sport license fees and severely restrict harvest regulations,” he said. “These two events, when combined, spell failure. It’s time for the counties, ports and all user groups to demand action to restore the public trust in these two agencies.”

The EIS in the 1970s said the 22-mile length of free-flowing stream the dam would inundate would be lost, as well as habitat for rainbow and cutthroat trout.

“The natural run of anadromous fish that utilize the fiver above the dam will be blocked,” it reads.

The 325-foot-tall dam also blocks the natural runoff of gravel that salmon need to spawn, and tributaries downstream aren’t making up for that as expected.

“There’s a 25-mile stretch of the river that’s affected,” he said. “Seventy-five percent of the river from Shady Cove up is pretty gravel-poor now.”

Beyerlin presented graphs and tables showing the rate of return of spring Chinook salmon; the most recent year had a shortfall of 8,922 fish. Over the past 14 years, that shortage has totaled 113,945 fish.

Economic impact

Those 114,000 fish are important to the recreational fishing industry in both the lower and upper stretches of the Rogue River.

He used the economic value of Rogue River salmon from ECONorthwest 2009 to determine that each spring chinook has a value of $576. That has resulted in an economic loss of $9.6 million from 2008 to 2017, he said.

The hatchery program, intended to replace lost natural production, releases more than 1.7 million smolt between mid-August and mid-March.

“ODFW has been asked many times to truck smolt downstream, below old Gold Rey Dam, for release … and being more adaptable in those release dates,” Beyerlin said. “So release dates and methods are a convenience and money saver for hatchery operations, but not necessarily the best resource management.”

He suggests altering those release dates, as the smolt are either being released in water that is too warm or in habitats in which they are gobbled up by predators most active in the peak of those time frame.

“If the Rogue River had no fish, what value would that be to our economy?” he said. “It’s a $1.5 billion industry — big driver for the tourism and travel industries. I don’t care about the money; they’ve got a contract they’re supposed to be obeying — a directive to ensure the viable population of Rogue River spring Chinook salmon. This is a violation of the EIS and the Dam Authorization Act, and appears this has been forgotten.”