Chetco Steelhead

A 21-pound, 4-ounce steelhead from the Chetco River.

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William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, famously said, “Nature provides a free lunch, but only if we control our appetites.” This wisdom is relevant to the Rogue South Coast Conservation Plan for salmon and steelhead, which aims to ensure southern coastal Oregon populations of these fish remain robust and continue to provide angling and harvest opportunities into the future. 

Leonard Krug (letter, Jan. 4) reminds us of the value of steelhead fisheries to Oregon coastal communities. These iconic fish are critical to the culture and economy of our state and support a robust industry during winter months in which tourism is at low ebb. However, as wild steelhead stocks continue to decline in many watersheds in the Pacific Northwest and remain at-risk everywhere due to a variety of factors (including climate change-driven changes in precipitation and in marine conditions), we should emphasize angling opportunity over harvest in managing coastal steelhead fisheries – especially of currently viable wild steelhead stocks. 

As a lifelong angler, I have worked with Mr. Krug and others to develop or refine management solutions for South Coast salmon and steelhead through this conservation plan. In Oregon, harvest of wild winter steelhead is unique to the South Coast (and two rivers on the mid-coast). But due to a woeful lack of population monitoring, we don’t have a good idea of how many wild fish return to South Coast rivers from year to year, nor how many fish are harvested each year.  

Wild steelhead are a precious, vulnerable resource and are the cheapest and most ecologically sustainable way to provide steelhead angling opportunity. But if we don’t know how many there are in southern Oregon coastal streams, or how many are harvested by anglers, managing them sustainably is impossible. Much like you wouldn’t continue spending from your bank account if you didn’t know your income or your account balance, we must be conservative about harvesting wild steelhead on the South Coast until we know with more accuracy how many return each year.  

Ultimately, it’s the opportunity to catch wild steelhead – not kill them - that will keep bringing anglers back to the South Coast. The argument that angler participation is low on steelhead streams with catch and release only regulations is simply not true. One need only look to the Umpqua River, where, since 2014, all wild steelhead caught must be released, to find one of the most popular (and crowded) winter steelhead rivers in the country. A change to catch and release only for wild steelhead on the Umpqua was championed by fishing guides, who have documented more and larger wild steelhead brought to hand since then. I, for one, hope we can continue wild steelhead harvest on the South Coast, but we need more data to ensure wild harvest doesn’t put the future of these fish at risk. 

In the 1990s, NOAA Fisheries conducted a status review of steelhead in the Klamath Mountain Province, the region that includes the South Coast. The report concludes “[t]he Klamath Mountains Province steelhead ESU [Evolutionary Significant Unit] is not now at risk of extinction, but if present trends continue, it is likely to become so in the foreseeable future… Conserving existing diversity within this ESU should be a key component of recovery planning.” Ensuring enough wild steelhead reach their spawning grounds is crucial to preserving genetic diversity – much better monitoring of both adult return numbers and overall harvest of wild fish will be required to achieve this goal. Until we have this data, we need to proceed cautiously and control our appetites.   

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