By MARK FREEMAN
State fish managers are crafting a management plan for the Rogue River’s fall chinook salmon to ensure that the basin’s most robust salmon run stays that way.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is taking comments on its draft plan that at first would create no changes in angling seasons, rules or catch limits in the Rogue. But it would set minimum standards that could trigger changes to protect the nearly all-wild run of the basin’s largest salmon.
The plan will set benchmarks for a desired number of chinook and for a minimum level of returns that would trigger measures to conserve the run.
But the draft defines the run’s “desired status” as a running 10-year average of just under 58,000 chinook returning to the basin, according to the draft. The current 10-year average for the basin actually is more than 97,000 chinook and the run’s estimate has been below that desired status line only once — during the drought-ravaged run of 1991.
That’s far different than the basin’s Spring Chinook Management Plan, crafted last decade amid depressed runs. Those numbers triggered cutbacks in the quantity of wild spring chinook caught and kept by anglers.
Unlike the spring chinook plan, the fall chinook plan has been crafted not in the midst of a salmon crisis, but with averting one in mind.
“We’ll be setting some sideboards for conservation, but we’re nowhere near there,” says Todd Confer, the ODFW’s Gold Beach District fish biologist, who has worked on the plan.
“We’re doing this because we want to avoid conservation issues down the road.”
The picture is less rosy for the Chetco River and a handful of other Curry County rivers with fall chinook runs. They also are covered in the 176-page draft plan, but it focuses primarily on the Rogue.
Public meetings on the draft are scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Marie Hill Conference Room, 510 NW 4th St. in Grants Pass and at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Council Chambers of Brookings City Hall, 898 Elk Drive, Brookings.
The Rogue run of fall chinook begins in July and extends into December. They have ranged historically from small 2-year-old “jack” salmon to 6-year-olds weighing sometimes more than 70 pounds. Most river-bound chinook spawn in the mainstems of the Rogue, Applegate and Illinois, while lower Rogue fish tend to spawn largely in tributaries.
The only hatchery influence is a small facility on Indian Creek near Gold Beach and strays from other river systems.
An estimated 16 percent of the Rogue’s fall chinook population is caught at sea in sport and commercial fisheries, while in-river catches can shave another 10 to 15 percent off the run, Confer says.
However, the run is considered so robust that it could withstand harvest rates of up to 60 percent, Confer says.
The rosy fall chinook picture is painted largely by the location and operations of Lost Creek and Applegate reservoirs, with Lost Creek on the mainstem Rogue near Trail and Applegate on the Applegate River in southeast Jackson County.
Spring chinook lost about one-third of their spawning habitat with the building of Lost Creek Dam, but the basin’s two main dams were built upstream of prime fall chinook habitat and thus were unharmed by their placements.
Also, low summer flows were long blamed as the main limiting factor for fall chinook production basin-wide. Water stored in the Lost Creek and Applegate reservoirs supplements summer flows in those streams, and over time has helped fall chinook expand their usable habitat.
“The bottom line is fall chinook likely are much more abundant than they were historically, and that’s because of Lost Creek and Applegate (reservoirs),” Confer says.
The draft breaks the Rogue run into five segments — the upper, lower and middle Rogue, as well as the Applegate and Illinois rivers, the Rogue’s two largest tributaries. For management purposes, however, the draft breaks them into two groups, the lower Rogue and the four remaining sub-populations.
That’s because only the lower Rogue has spawning surveys to gauge their relative health. Those fish largely trickle in after the summer netting surveys at Huntley Park near Gold Beach, and that survey is used to gauge the relative health of the other four subgroups.
The draft has five alternatives for Rogue fall chinook management, with alternatives 4 and 5 getting the most support within the plan’s advisory.
The two virtually mirror each other except for how much emphasis would be placed on curbing predation on juvenile and adult fall chinook.
Alternative 5, pushed by some angling interests, seek increased control of predators such as cormorants and California sea lions. Cormorants are known to feast on out-migrating smolts, while sea lions eat adults off anglers’ fishing lines in the bay during summer.
The Port of Gold Beach and angling groups fund a sea-lion hazing program that ODFW supports. However, state biologists view it as a way to reduce sea lion-angler conflicts and say that sea-lion predation is not a primary limiting factor to chinook returns.
The draft was crafted with the help of an advisory committee that met more than 20 times.
“It’s important to have a plan like this,” says Maynard Flohaug of Eagle Point, a Middle Rogue Steelheaders member who sat on the committee. “There’s really no crisis, but it could happen. This is to be prepared for that.”
The draft will be tweaked following the public comment period and presented to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission for adoption, likely this fall, ODFW spokeswoman Meghan Collins said.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.