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Commentaries and editorials

ODFW Commission Protects Wild Steelhead

by Staff
The Bend Bulletin, February 14, 2005

The ODFW harvest management staff proposed to increase the kill of ESA-listed wild steelhead in the lower Columbia River, Willamette River and mid-Columbia.

They wanted the “flexibility” the increased harvest rate on steelhead would provide so that more hatchery spring chinook could be harvested in the commercial fishery.

The proposal is to increase the harvest rate on wild steelhead from 2% of the run to 6% even though the estimated harvest rate in 2003 and 2004 was less than 1%.

According to staff this would increase the kill of wild steelhead from 540 at 2% harvest rate to 1620 wild steelhead at a 6% harvest rate. The staff justified this increased mortality on ESA-listed steelhead on the improved run sizes in recent years.

The NMFS gave the states a green light to kill more wild steelhead, saying it would not jeopardize the existence of the wild populations.

However, increasing the harvest rate impedes the recovery of wild steelhead, a factor that the NMFS ignores. An agency that says the mainstem dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers are a part of the natural ecosystem of salmon and do not jeopardize salmon runs believes in a string of decisions that do not recover salmon.

It must be kept in mind that the branch of NMFS making this decision is the Sustainable Fisheries program not the Protected Species Program. The Sustainable Fisheries staff are federal harvest managers and have a lot in common with the harvest management staffs in the states. It is interesting that a cooperative state and federal status assessment for steelhead and spring chinook in the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers published in 2004 was not included in the biological opinion by NMFS or by the harvest managers in each of the states in their proposal.

This status assessment points out that every wild steelhead and chinook population, where there is data, is at very high or high risk of extinction. None of these wild populations were considered viable. By not including this information to their respective commissions, the harvest management staffs were skewing the information to support their proposal. The NFS exposed this problem and others to the ODFW commission.

In 2004 the commercial fishery was closed down because the ESA-listed up-river spring chinook came into the Columbia at the same time that the Willamette River run did. Usually, the peak of these two runs are separated in time and a commercial fishery for spring chinook can harvest Willamette hatchery fish within the harvest limits set for protection of wild up-river spring chinook.

But in 2004 this did not work out. The use of large mesh gill nets (9-inch mesh) intercepts very few steelhead but it does catch the larger spring chinook. To help avoid a high kill rate on up-river spring chinook, the states of Oregon and Washington are evaluating the use of the tangle tooth net, which allows wild chinook and steelhead to be released while harvesting hatchery chinook. The problem is that the tangle nets catch more steelhead than large mesh gill nets, and more are killed. The flexibility the harvest management staff is looking for is a higher by-catch harvest rate on wild steelhead in the tangle net fishery so that more hatchery chinook can be harvested while, at the same time, staying within the harvest restrictions on wild chinook.

If the hatchery chinook cannot be harvested, they are wasted. The states raise these fish to be caught, but if the commercial fishery cannot catch their share, it is difficult to justify the size of the hatchery releases.

News Sources
ODFW Commission Protects Wild Steelhead
The Bend Bulletin, February 14, 2005

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