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In this Oct. 17, 2013 image, a wild steelhead is netted and quickly released ./AP

Petition seeks wild steelhead ban

Sport-anglers are at odds on whether to keep or ban one of the last bastions of winter steelhead fishing in Southwest Oregon — the legal keeping of wild winter steelhead on some of the healthiest steelhead rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

A group of fishing guides and others has asked the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to ban the keeping of wild winter steelhead on the Rogue River as well as the Chetco, Elk, Illinois and other streams where anglers can keep one wild winter steelhead a day and up to five total per year.

The petitioners say the change would create simpler and more consistent rules for the region, allow more angling opportunities because wild steelhead could be caught multiple times and over time it would create bigger fish that survive to spawn in multiple years.

Unlike salmon, steelhead can survive spawning and make several spawning runs in their lifetimes.

They also point to perceived declines in angling success rates from recent droughts and dips in ocean conditions and vast losses of wild juvenile steelhead habitat in the Chetco River drainage from last year’s Chetco Bar fire, according to the petition.

South Coast streams are some of the few remaining in the Pacific Northwest where the killing of any wild steelhead is allowed, and petition supporters believe anglers should quit killing steelhead while the species is still ahead.

“I make my living on the backs of these amazing animals,” said Brookings-based fishing guide Harvey Young, the lead petitioner. “Why are we so special that we can continue to harvest wild steelhead?”

ODFW biologists have recommended that the commission deny the petition, but at the same time order the agency to develop a multi-species conservation plan for the Rogue and other South Coast steelhead streams.

If the commission accepts the petition, it would ask agency biologists to draft proposed rules to match the intent of the position and take those out for public comment before the commission would vote on it.

The proposal also has an opposition camp among other steelhead anglers who, like the ODFW, believe the streams sport strong enough wild winter steelhead runs to withstand anglers keeping some.

ODFW data show that most winter steelhead anglers already release most of the wild fish they catch, and that harvest data shows the vast majority of anglers do not keep more than two wild steelhead a year, said Dan VanDyke, the ODFW’s Rogue District fish biologist.

Also, a 2013 Oregon State University public-opinion survey showed that 69 percent of Oregonians and 68 percent of anglers favor anglers keeping some wild fish when it does not risk population health.

Leonard Krug of Brookings says all of the ODFW’s data about wild steelhead in South Coast streams support the limited harvest opportunities that currently exist.

“I’m hopeful the commission will vote on the side of science and maintain state regulations as we know them,” Krug said. “I think there’s enough people in our camp that it shouldn’t fly.”

Originally, anglers were banned from keeping wild steelhead as part of a deal the ODFW cut in 1997 with the National Marine Fisheries Service to sidestep a threatened species listing for wild steelhead in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

At the time, the so-called “one-and-five rule” was allowed only on the Rogue. It was expanded to the Chetco, Elk, Pistol and Winchuck rivers as well as Hunter and Euchre creeks in 2003 after ODFW biologists successfully argued to the commission for the expansion.

Only the Rogue and Chetco rivers and the Coquille rivers have hatchery steelhead programs.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @/MTwriterFreeman.

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