ODFW Commission Keeps South Coast Wild Steelhead Retention Regs

Editor’s note: See bottom for ODFW press release on the day’s main event.

Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commissioners maintained a conservative bag limit on wild steelhead on select South Coast rivers in a 5-2 vote early this afternoon.

It was the most contentious decision of a slate that went into the unanimous approval of the long-debated overarching Rogue-South Coast Multi-Species Conservation and Management Plan.


The vote keeps the annual limit on unclipped steelhead at one a day and three in aggregate for the next five years, which ODFW staff had recommended.

The other option for the citizen panel that sets the agency’s policies was to switch to catch-and-release only, as is the case on Oregon’s Central and North Coasts and inland rivers.

“Harvest by sport anglers has minimal impact on steelhead populations. It’s all about habitat, ocean conditions and predation,” said South Coast river and ocean guide Andy Martin who, full disclosure, advertises in Northwest Sportsman. “Rivers that have been closed to harvest for 30 years have seen no increase in run size. The commission made the right decision based on recommendations of its biologists and dozens of stakeholders. These rivers can sustain limited wild harvest while maintaining the healthiest wild steelhead populations on the Oregon Coast.”

Voting in favor were Vice Chair Jill Zarnowitz and Commissioners Becky Hatfield-Hyde, Dr. Leslie King, Mark Labhart and Robert Spelbrink and against it were Chair Mary Wahl and Commissioner Kathayoon Khalil.

The decision follows on a “marathon public comment session” yesterday that had C&R proponents focusing on climate change, conservation and data uncertainties, while those in favor of continued limited harvest pointed to ODFW staffers’ judgment that doing so wouldn’t harm the population, according to one observer of the meeting. They likened it to a culture war roiling the steelheading community.

It follows on unprecedented restrictions placed on Washington Coast steelhead the past two winters and poor returns of summer-runs up and down the West Coast. Most anglers today release wild steelhead.

Arguing in favor of maintaining harvest opportunity on wild steelhead, Yamhill’s Zarnowitz said it was important to the region and that a letter from the Coos-Coquille Tribe had left her feeling like the commission needed “to provide this for the residents and tribes.”

Spelbrink, of Siletz, expressed confidence in both ODFW staff and adaptive management to be able to “adapt on the fly.”

One of the commission’s other decisions today was to use more conservative juvenile steelhead and Rogue half-pounder abundance thresholds to judge whether near-future fisheries needed to be constrained or not.

Overall, the question of wild steelhead retention was a difficult decision for the commission, one that Portland’s Khalil said she hated. For the relative newcomer to the panel, it came down to weighing livelihoods against the longterm future of the fish, and she said she expected the future for steelhead to be “so much worse” than before.

Wahl, who lives in the tiny South Coast community of Langlois, said that in her recollection, another tribe had asked for catch-and-release instead of retention. She said that nothing was clearer to her than the importance of the fish to small towns but also that her responsibility was first to the resource.

The Native Fish Society, which supported switching to catch-and-release, was disappointed by the commission’s wild steelhead decision but told its supporters to hold ODFW’s feet to the fire.

“Stewardship of wild fish takes vigilance,” Mark Sherwood, NFS executive director, said in a post on the organization’s Facebook page. “For the future of wild steelhead, it’s critical you stay involved to hold ODFW accountable to annually gather adult steelhead data, present it to the public each year, and ensure we do not exceed angling impacts to wild fish.”

The commission also decided to boost Rogue River hatchery coho releases by 25,000 to 100,000, which is just half of the federally allowable level. Spelbrink said the move would produce 200 to 300 more harvestable fish, and while some commissioners expressed nervousness about the potential risk to listed silver stocks, a vote to keep the status quo release of 75,000 failed and the panel then unanimously agreed to increase coho stocking by 33 percent.

Chair Wahl said a big thank-you to ODFW staff and the public for their work and interest on the Rogue-South Coast plan.  



Commission adopts Rogue South Coast Plan that emphasizes wild fish, continues to allow wild steelhead retention

After hearing from more than 150 people that signed up to testify on Thursday and several hours of discussion today, the Commission adopted the Rogue–South Coast Multi-Species Conservation and Management Plan. The plan creates a large network for wild fish emphasis areas in southwest Oregon and continues to allow conservative wild winter steelhead harvest.

Commissioners voted unanimously on most aspects of the Plan with the exception of allowing wild steelhead retention. This was a split 5-2 vote in favor of staff recommendation to not move to exclusively catch-and-release fishing.

Other modifications from staff recommendations included making the Winchuck River basin a Wild Fish Emphasis Area and raising the conservation thresholds at which actions to protect wild winter steelhead are taken.

Wild Fish Emphasis Areas are locations where no hatchery fish are stocked. Any new hatchery program in these areas would require Commission action.  Approximately 80 percent of the plan area is now designated as Wild Fish Emphasis Areas. The network of wild fish emphasis areas is larger than anything south of Canada. Key to creating more resilience to climate change is a plan to improve habitats within these areas.

Hatchery coho smolt release numbers were increased slightly in the Rogue River (by 25,000).

If conservation thresholds are triggered, additional actions will be taken to protect a species. For wild winter steelhead, actions would include implementing catch-and-release regulations or closing fisheries. If more restrictive regulations are not necessary, reducing harvest to 1 fish per day and 1 fish per year is also an option for the lower Rogue River only.

Other notable pieces of the plan include a robust climate change analysis, habitat strategies and actions to minimize climate change impacts, significant outreach and coordination efforts on many aspects of the plan, new fishing authorizations required for winter steelhead angling (which will require legislative approval for any fee increase), and significant new monitoring efforts throughout the planning area.

Two stakeholder teams worked for nearly two years helping ODFW develop the plan. Adoption of the staff recommended alternative reflects the stakeholder team process and was a compromise between what various stakeholders recommended.

The Commission also adopted recreational marine fishing regulations for 2022 today. Next year there will be a 5-fish marine bag limit which should offer stability and reduce the risk of needing to lower the bag limit during the season. Retention of quillback rockfish will also be prohibited in 2022 (so removed from the one-fish aggregate sub-bag limit) to reduce impacts on this species, a change that should have minimal impact as most anglers do not target them.

Finally, the duration of the 40-fathom depth restriction will be reduced to two months (July-August) from three (June-August) next year. The seasonal depth restriction has been used for many years to protect yelloweye rockfish, and this species’ status is improving.

The Commission also:

  • Adopted rules to allow ODFW to provide free daily angling/shellfish licenses to participants of certain organizations who serve Veterans and active military service members, per Senate Bill (SB) 320 passed by the 2021 Oregon State Legislature. The new program will be available Jan. 1, 2022 and organizations interested can contact License.Services@odfw.oregon.gov
  • Adopted rules to allow big game tags to be purchased after the sale deadline online or at license agents via the electronic licensing system. Prior to the rule change, this process was limited to in person purchases at an ODFW office. Hunters who do this will still need to attest that they did not hunt before their tag purchase and pay the existing late tag fee of $25.50.
  • Added elk to the urban deer population control program, per SB 761 passed by the 2021 Oregon State Legislature. This will allow cities, when authorized by ODFW, to control elk numbers in urban areas when elk are causing public nuisance, safety concerns and damage to property. Cities who use the program must first pass an ordinance against feeding and placing attractants for elk. Meat from any elk is to be donated to a food bank or charitable organization.
  • Added bighorn sheep tags to big game tags that can be provided (outside the controlled hunt draw process) to terminally ill children.

Commissions also voted unanimously to elect Jill Zarnowitz of Yamhill the Vice Chair and welcomed new Commissioner Dr. Leslie King of Portland, who was appointed in November 2021.