North Umpqua Coalition asks ODFW to Reduce Harm to Imperiled Summer Steelhead Populations

Photo: Deadline Falls on the NU, Joe O’Brien

North Umpqua River, Idleyld Park, Oregon – On January 31, 2022 the North Umpqua Coalition, consisting of The Conservation Angler, Native Fish Society, The Steamboaters, The North Umpqua Foundation, Umpqua Watersheds, and Pacific Rivers, filed a Petition for Declaratory Ruling with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission asking them to pause the production and release of hatchery Summer Steelhead until ODFW staff and fisheries managers can adhere to their own conservation management plan (Coastal Multi-Species Conservation and Management Plan aka CMP) for the North Umpqua River. The North Umpqua Coalition shares a vision of an all wild Steelhead North Umpqua River.

The North Umpqua Coalition’s petition asks the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to direct the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to pause the release of hatchery Summer Steelhead of the North Umpqua River in order to comply with their own conservation management plan and administrative rules. The coalition is asking for a management change based on the high levels of hatchery origin Summer Steelhead spawning in the wild. The best available science shows detrimental effects to wild native fish when hatchery fish spawn with wild native fish. To protect the viability of wild summer steelhead, ODFW’s conservation management plan for the North Umpqua River provides that the proportion of hatchery steelhead spawning in the wild must be 10% or less in the majority of wild fish spawning areas. ODFW reports a nine year average of 33% hatchery Summer Steelhead on the spawning beds in the North Umpqua River, and 77% hatchery Summer Steelhead are spawning in and near Rock Creek causing major concerns for the long-term health of wild Summer Steelhead. Not releasing hatchery summer steelhead smolts and pausing the summer steelhead hatchery program will allow summer steelhead to respond as the all-wild winter steelhead population on the North Umpqua has since the cessation of that hatchery program.

“The current scientific literature clearly shows substantial adverse impacts to wild Steelhead populations from interactions with hatchery fish. In addition to reduced fitness from genetic integration among the spawning populations, other factors; such as competition, predation, disease transmission, and altered predator survival and behavior begin as soon as juveniles are released into the natural environment” says Jeff Dose, longtime Fisheries Biologist with the Umpqua National Forest.

ODFW is rearing ~79,000 hatchery Summer Steelhead smolts at Cole River Hatchery in the Rogue River watershed. As recently reported in the Medford Mail Tribune, heaters at Cole Rivers Hatchery have malfunctioned and fish are unlikely to meet ODFW’s size standards for release. The best available

scientific evidence shows that smaller juvenile Steelhead often fail to migrate to the ocean, with a subsequent high likelihood of residualizing where they were released and even spawning with wild fish. It is critical ODFW not release undersized Summer Steelhead smolts into the North Umpqua this year. ODFW has other options such as releasing them into the Galesville Reservoir where more anglers have the opportunity to catch them.

“The North Umpqua River’s iconic run of wild Summer Steelhead continue to struggle with only 347 wild fish returning to spawn this year,” said Becky McRae, President of The North Umpqua Foundation. “ It is clear a fisheries management change is critical and pausing the hatchery Summer Steelhead program is one limiting factor ODFW can easily change to help restore these wild Summer Steelhead populations.”

The North Umpqua Coalition began sharing their concerns about the wild Summer Steelhead population on the North Umpqua River with ODFW over a year ago. Members of the Coalition attended the September 2021 ODFW Commission meeting asking for action and change in management. The Coalition was informed there would be a public outreach period during the fall of 2021, yet no such meetings occurred. During the December 2021 ODFW Commission meeting a member of the coalition gave public testimony reminding commissioners and staff of the emergency situation and asked for a change in management. On January 7, 2022 the Coalition wrote again to the ODFW Director and Fisheries Division Administrator asking for immediate action. While ODFW made a statement at the January commission meeting that there is an evaluation underway, no management changes have been taken that would bring them into compliance with their own policies and rules.

The Coalition’s petition asks that the Commission directs ODFW Staff to pause the Summer Steelhead hatchery program to ensure the long-term health and conservation of wild Summer Steelhead.

“It is absurd that ODFW insists on releasing hatchery fish into a river with so few wild fish that it must be closed to all angling,” said Karl Konecny, board member of the Steamboaters and The North Umpqua Foundation.

The North Umpqua Coalition is working to conserve and restore the North Umpqua River and its wild fish populations. Working together, their vision is focused on restoring an all wild steelhead North Umpqua, making it the only river in Oregon with a population of both wild summer and wild winter steelhead. This advocacy has been made possible through a grant from the Flyfisher Foundation of Oregon.