The last time the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife closed off harvest of wild spring Chinook salmon was ...
“Never,” said Greg Huchko, the head fish biologist for the ODFW’s Umpqua District. “To our recollection, this is the first time the mainstem Umpqua will be closed to the harvest of wild spring Chinook.”
But fish counts for wild Chinook in recent years have been sparse, with 64 returning from the Pacific Ocean to the South Umpqua River this past year. That number is more than double the 29 that returned to the South Umpqua in 2018.
Dwindling fish counts numbers over the past two years are the primary reason Huchko and Assistant Fish Biologist Frank Drakes are seeking to prohibit harvest of wild spring Chinook on the mainstem Umpqua River for the springer season, which is from Feb. 1 to June 30. The organization made the call Friday in an effort to help preserve the vulnerable species, which has been impacted in recent years by drought conditions that have reduced river flow and increased water temperatures.
ODFW staffers on Friday originally said the move was official. Later in the day, however, they clarified that the move has to go through an approval process and won’t be official until it’s formally signed and filed by Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno, according to ODFW spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy. She said it’s a standard procedure for all temporary rules ODFW puts into place.
Not all harvest of spring Chinook would be off limits: Anglers on the North Umpqua may still retain wild springers as per the 2020 aggregate bag-limit regulations, and could also retain hatchery spring Chinook on the mainstem Umpqua.
“Knowing that the population has been low the past decade or so, but then we see it go down to ... 10% of what was already a low average (in 2018),” Huchko said. “That certainly raised a red flag. We kind of wanted to wait a year and see how it went, and it went up past 60 — which is good because it jumped but was still well below the average.”
With harvest of wild spring Chinook not allowed on the mainstem Umpqua, aggregate bag limits would default to two fish per day and 10 per season on the North Umpqua. In previous years, up to five of the 10-fish limit could be harvested from the mainstem Umpqua.
The Coastal Multi-Species Conservation and Management Plan, put into play nearly six years ago to help conserve and manage salmon populations in Oregon, called for around 600 fish to make a return to spawning grounds every year. Yearly returns, Huchko said, had averaged close to 200 fish for the previous two decades prior to 2018.
Much of it, Huchko said, has come from environmental factors. He pointed to drought conditions in 2015 that led to much lower river levels and warmer waters which may have taken a toll on spawning.
“Some people don’t realize ... that spring Chinook come in from the ocean in the spring, but they don’t spawn until late summer and early fall,” ODFW fish biologist Evan Leonetti said. “So they’re more impacted by this change in climate and more susceptible to those warm-water conditions as compared to Coho or Steelhead where the water is typically cold.”
The move is separate from a petition the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider during its monthly meeting at ODFW’s headquarters in Salem. The proposed temporary rule, which would go into effect for 180 days, would prohibit the retention of wild winter steelhead in rivers throughout the Southwest Zone, mostly encompassing Douglas, Coos, Curry, Josephine and Jackson counties.
A press release said ODFW staff are recommending commissioners deny this petition as they do not have a conservation concern for wild winter steelhead on the south coast. The meeting takes place the morning of Jan. 17.