Rogue South Coast Management Plan: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Over the past two years, Native Fish Society has been neck-deep in the creation of the Rogue South Coast Multi-Species Conservation Management Plan (RSP) advocating for science based fisheries management that will help conserve and restore populations of Steelhead, Coho Salmon, and Coastal Cutthroat Trout. Two stakeholders represented Native Fish Society throughout the process. Charles Gehr, Rogue River Steward, served as the stakeholder on Rogue River aspects of the plan and NFS Executive Director, Mark Sherwood served as stakeholder on aspects of the plan related to coastal rivers. NFS was transparent throughout the process looking to work alongside other stakeholders to find a positive solution to conserve and protect the species identified in this conservation management plan. After over a year of stakeholder meetings and engagement in 2020, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) released a public draft of the RSP in 2021.
There were three comment periods where ODFW asked for pubic input on the final plan that would be adopted by the ODFW Commission in December of 2021. Although ODFW heard from many invested stakeholders including anglers, landowners, and conservationists, few changes were made based on public feedback.
In December of 2021, the ODFW Commission voted to adopt the plan solidifying the RSP for the next 12 years in southwestern Oregon. In this article, we will break down the plan going through the good, the bad and the ugly. NFS worked tirelessly with our partners, Wild Salmon Center, Trout Unlimited’s Wild Steelheaders United, and Klamath Siskiyou Wild, making positive improvements to what was initially proposed by the department. Without this strong collaboration between everyone involved, this plan would be drastically different.
Although NFS and other conservation groups did not receive everything we were advocating for, there were positive things that came from the planning process. Below I will highlight the two major wins that NFS and our partners can attribute to our persistent advocacy.
First, the monitoring that will be conducted in the RSP is a step in the right direction. In 2015, funds were reallocated from the Rogue River and south coast streams to help with the catastrophic collapse of salmon and Steelhead in the Columbia River Basin. Since this event, no adult Winter Steelhead monitoring had occurred in the Rogue or south coast rivers.
With the new plan, ODFW has listed multiple areas in which they will increase the monitoring of the Rogue and south coast watersheds. The one that Native Fish Society and our partners are thrilled about is the population level spawning surveys that will give a general idea of how many adult Winter Steelhead return to spawn annually in each river. This is a meaningful change from the status quo and will finally provide the basic information needed to assess the health of these Winter Steelhead populations.
ODFW has included Winter Steelhead creel surveys in the monitoring. What’s a creel survey? A creel survey is when ODFW staff contacts anglers at boat ramps and popular fishing locations to see how they did, evaluate fishing effort, and get a general idea of how many fish are being caught and retained. All this information can be used to help understand catch rates, harvest rates, and the overall trend of the fishery. This is a step in the right direction for the Winter Steelhead fisheries in the Rogue and south coast watersheds.
The RSP includes special management areas in which ODFW will manage directly for wild fish: Wild Fish Emphasis Areas (WFEA); and management areas where both wild fish and hatchery fish will be managed: Mixed Emphasis Areas (MEA). Wild Fish Emphasis Areas are defined as Management Areas which are not stocked with any hatchery fish. Overall, ODFW has designated a large portion of southwest Oregon’s rivers as Wild Fish Emphasis Areas.
The Wild Fish Emphasis Areas designated in the plan were a tremendous success for all conservation groups including Wild Salmon Center, Trout Unlimited and Native Fish Society. The Coalition of groups were able to increase and secure these protections not only for species included in the plan (Winter and Summer Steelhead, Coho Salmon, and Cutthroat Trout) but also for Spring and Fall Chinook Salmon. Oregon’s Coast now boasts the largest collection of rivers managed for wild fish south of Canada.
A little background on Coho management in southern Oregon is necessary before we jump right in. In 1997, Southern Oregon Northern California Coho (SONCC) Salmon were listed as ‘Threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act due to the usual suspects - habitat degradation, overfishing, hatchery impacts, and dams. Fisheries managers reduced the kill of wild Coho Salmon in the ocean and required catch and release for wild Coho caught in freshwater fisheries. Over time the size of Coho hatchery programs were reduced as well to lessen impacts.
The only SONCC river in Oregon with a hatchery Coho release is the Rogue River. Currently 75,000 juveniles are released each year to increase opportunity for angler harvest and mitigate for habitat loss from the construction of the William L. Jess dam by the Army Corps of Engineers. ODFW proposed and encouraged a 25,000 juvenile hatchery fish increase for the Rogue Basin, bringing the total annual release to 100,000 hatchery Coho salmon. Unfortunately, according to ODFW's harvest card reports from 2008-2018 an average of only 400 adult hatchery Coho get harvested annually.
By reducing ocean harvest and hatchery Coho releases and focusing on habitat restoration, ODFW and National Marine Fisheries Service paved the way to restore these imperiled populations. Instead, this plan increases hatchery releases to provide more harvest opportunity for anglers, but it is unlikely that the 25,000 fish increase will significantly change anything. According to ODFW, an average of 1,300 hatchery Coho return to the Rogue every year, only 1.7% of the total hatchery Coho released. This makes anglers wonder if these hatchery fish are a reasonable return on our investment of funds used to produce and manage them? We’ll let you be the judge of that.
Well you knew it was coming, and here it is - in a split 5 to 2 vote the ODFW Commission decided to continue to allow a kill fishery on wild Winter Steelhead in the Rogue River and south coast streams for the next five years while monitoring occurs. Unfortunately, this decision was made with little to no data on what would be sustainable for the fishery. In fact, ODFW currently has no population estimates, no harvest records that are accurate, and no idea of how many wild Winter Steelhead are escaping the fishery to spawn naturally. Yet based on data from the upper Rogue and anecdotal evidence, ODFW will start monitoring now to help better manage the fishery into the future.
As a silver lining to this downright poor decision was the inclusion of Winter Steelhead Authorizations for folks angling in southern Oregon. ODFW will require all anglers wishing to fish the waters of the Rogue or south coast to buy a Rogue-South Coast Steelhead Validation, which will provide ODFW with the total number of anglers fishing for Winter Steelhead in this region. Funds generated by this validation will go right back to the monitoring of Winter Steelhead in the region. The second authorization would be a Rogue-South Coast Wild Steelhead Harvest Card. Any anglers wishing to keep a wild Winter Steelhead will be required to purchase the card and report the number of fish kept. This authorization will help fund Winter Steelhead monitoring and will assist the department in getting accurate harvest estimates and harvest rates, ultimately providing the critical information needed to guide a sustainable fishery.
Just last week, NFS Executive Director Mark Sherwood and River Steward Charles Gehr testified to the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources advocating for HB 4072, which would implement these Steelhead Authorizations next year. Due to their advocacy and the collaboration with other conservation organizations, RSP Stakeholders, and ODFW staff, this bill is currently on track to be passed into legislation. If things proceed as hoped, these critical authorizations will be required in the 2023 licenses sales year.
Another ugly aspect of the plan proposed by ODFW and adopted by the Commission was off-site releases of hatchery fish. Multiple locations downstream of Applegate Reservoir and Cole Rivers hatchery have been identified as locations for hatchery Steelhead releases. The best available science recommends against offsite hatchery releases due to high rates of hatchery fish spawning with wild fish. ODFW is justifying these releases to increase fishing opportunities in the Middle Rogue River and ensure stakeholders that no more than 10% of the naturally spawning Steelhead will be hatchery fish.
Unfortunately, ODFW has not monitored Summer or Winter Steelhead spawning in the basin and appear to have little data on how many hatchery fish are spawning in the wild. On the North Umpqua River, where monitoring occurs, over 30% of the Summer Steelhead spawning naturally above Winchester Dam are hatchery fish. Cole Rivers hatchery on the Rogue River releases twice as many hatchery Summer and Winter Steelhead as in the Umpqua River.
There is reason for concern and ODFW has made a commitment in the plan to evaluate the large number of hatchery Summer Steelhead released into the Rogue River. We will make sure this assessment occurs, that ODFW monitors how many hatchery Steelhead are spawning in the wild, and that these hatchery fish do not exceed the 10% limit.
Native Fish Society saw two significant accomplishments from this process moving forward, a win for the organization and a win for wild fish of the Pacific Northwest. First and most importantly are the tight knit relationships we created with our partners in conservation. We worked hand in hand with two other leaders in the Pacific Northwest to help get the best possible results for wild fish. We stand with Wild Salmon Center and Trout Unlimited's Wild Steelheaders United to help advocate for wild fish. Because of these partnerships and working together, we were able to secure positive aspects of this plan including the significant increase in monitoring and designations of Wild Fish Emphasis Areas.
Not only were these relationships helpful in the RSP, but we are continuing to work together for our common goal, protecting and conserving wild fish long into the future.
The second accomplishment was the monitoring. In a few years, ODFW will possess substantive information on steelhead and salmon in southern Oregon. We ask you to continue to stay engaged with the monitoring, holding the department accountable for annual reports, and implementing the monitoring they identified in the plan. What good is saying you are going to do something without accomplishing it?
Your Advocacy over the past five years in this region has led to these accomplishments and steps forward. For that we thank you. And to the thousands of the people who stood up for the release of wild Steelhead in southern Oregon, THANK YOU! Your voice was heard. Fisheries managers took notice and understood we are all stakeholders for the future of wild fish. We must continue to keep a close eye on these populations, ensure management is changed when declines are present, and we must never quit advocating for wild fish. Let's continue to build this community around restoring wild fish, free-flowing rivers, if not for us, then for the future generations looking to follow in our footsteps.