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Scotch Broom and Spring Chinook

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Excerpt from Wikipedia:  Scotch Broom (C. scoparius) has been introduced into several other continents outside its native range (western and central Europe) and is classified as a noxious invasive species in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and parts of the east coast of North America. These shrubs commonly grow in disturbed areas and along utility and transportation rights-of-way. The prolific growth of this species after timber harvest inhibits reforestation by competing with seedling trees. It is estimated that it is responsible for US$47 million in lost timber production each year in Oregon.

Having now spent the last 1/4 century living in western Oregon, I feel qualified to say that the only positive thing about Scotch Broom is that it is the harbinger for Spring Chinook in the Willamette Valley.  When it’s blooming near Oregon City, the Springers are passing Willamette Falls.  When it’s blooming near Salem, Spring Chinook are moving into the mainstem Santiam and so on and so forth.

Scotch Broom is currently blooming near Stayton, Lyons, Mill City, Gates and even as far east as Detroit.  Usually that would mean 3,000 – 5,000 Spring Chinook are in the North Santiam Basin. This annual run of Spring Chinook generally breaks down to 20% native/wild fish and 80% hatchery raised fish.   The wild portion of this run is listed as threatened on the Endangered Species List.  Although 4,000 fish have passed Oregon City this year, only 1 has made it as far as Stayton, to pass above Bennett Dams.

The Scotch Broom was wrong this year.  So were the fishery forecasters.  But shooting the messengers doesn’t provide any answers or solve the problem.  Many folks did see this coming (and many more should have).  When this run of fish were smolts heading to ocean 2-3 years ago, they ran head on into both El Nino conditions and what was called “the Blob”.  (I wrote about it in July of 2015 here on this Blog if you want a refresher).  Essentially, these fish swam into an ocean that was warmer than usual.  These conditions disrupted the food chain from bottom to top.  When there’s no food, the populations suffer.

In order for anadromous species to survive, adult fish, that have been living in the ocean, must return to the freshwater to produce the next cycle of fish.  For wild/native fish, they must return to their natal streams and rivers.  For hatchery stocks, the fish have to make it back to the hatchery traps. Although early in the run, it’s probably a good time to be concerned.

Nothing was done to curtail fishing while these fish were in the ocean.  And until very recently, inland sport angling seasons were actually being extended.  Only within the past couple of weeks has the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) taken steps to offer protection of the stocks.  Angling days and bag limits below Willlamette Falls were reduced.  Some recent closures in the Columbia system were addressed as well.  As of yet, ODFW has not addressed angling restrictions or closures upstream of Willamette Falls. (where these fish are working their way towards their natal streams and/or hatchery traps).  In fact, there’s a very clear reminder on the Willamette Zone regulations update page that usual regulations are still in effect.  If this isn’t a clear case of an Ostrich with it’s head in it’s ass  in the sand, I don’t know what is!

The ODFW is following the same route it took with Wild Winter Steelhead (another ESA listed species) earlier this year with a “wait and see” position.  We waited.  What we “saw” was a run of fish that collapsed.  We are at the end of this run of fish and the numbers came out at around 10% of normal.  It’s this type of management that leads directly to extinction of a species.  We can’t blame ODFW for the El Nino or the Blob.  But I do believe we can, and should, call them out for mismanaging the end of the cycle once these fish entered freshwater.

I can only speak for my river – the North Santiam, but I think other tributaries of the Willamette have similar regulations.  As opposed to Salmon angling, there is no closure for steelhead fishing during the year, even when wild winter steelhead are spawning and kelting.  Bait is also allowed year-round. At least spawning salmon are given consideration in the early fall, when angling for them closes for a period of time.  And that consideration is absolutely necessary, not only for the wild/native fish, but also to ensure hatchery brood stock returns. After all, the North Santiam hatchery provides juvenile fish for the Molalla River, Tongue Point and Youngs Bay net pens, in addition to the North Santiam River below Big Cliff dam.  Without returning adults, there is no way to produce the 1.5 million juveniles for stocking locations in the Willamette and Columbia basins annually.

One final issue I generally point out when talking about management of fisheries on my river is the annual stocking of introduced Skamania Summer Steelhead.  I liken it to Scotch Broom from the invasive/noxious perspective.  As noted above, Scotch Broom has a serious impact on forestry as it “inhibits reforestation by competing with seedling trees”.  There is overwhelming scientific evidence the Skamania Summer Steelhead have the same type of impact on wild/native fish species in the region.  They compete with the wild fish at every stage of their life cycle.  Why the ODFW continues this practice is beyond my comprehension.  To purposefully introduce known harmful impacts on an ESA listed species is negligence.  Even more so when we all knew that there was a breakdown in the system for the past couple of years and that ALL species would be taking a hit.

Those yellow flowers we see each spring may be pretty, but they are a killer of our native plant life and cause significant financial problems in the local economy.  They no longer signal the arrival of Spring Chinook, at least this year in the North Santiam Basin.  However, I don’t point my finger at the messenger, instead I point it at the fishery managers.  If this year isn’t a wake up call that hatchery management systems are a failure, then I don’t know what is. Allowing ESA species to blink out on our watch, 2 in particular that are Pacific Northwest Icons, is criminal.

 

Fish Watch – 2017

In recent days I’ve been called a number of things – cry-baby, snowflake, bleeding heart, etc. It’s even been suggested that I wear pink ladies panties under my waders.  I will neither confirm nor deny such a thing, but will say that the idea does have some merit.  I can see how it would be easier to get in and out of wading gear.  Back to the point of this post – call me what you will, it doesn’t bother me.  I have a few ideas that may help the situation.  Are they the popular options? Oh hell no.  Will it have negative impacts on my guide business? Yes, big time.

As of April 10, 2017 there are 2 Spring Chinook and 16 Summer Steelhead above Willamette Falls. Normally, that count would be 500-750 of each species at this time of year. A small percentage of this run is what remains of the Upper Willamette Basin (UWB) Wild Spring Chinook (ESA Threatened), the rest are all hatchery raised fish used as broodstock to keep hatcheries going and provide an inland harvest sport fishery.

The hatchery fish are expensive, not just because of the millions of dollars it takes to raise, rear and release them each year, but also because of capital investment of millions of dollars to build and maintain the facilities to support the programs.

So far this year, Fishery Managers (ODFW) have stood by and done nothing as the Wild Winter Steelhead (ESA Threatened) in the UWB crashed. Even though they are charged with the responsibility to protect them, they don’t have a huge financial investment in those fish, so big deal, right?  Sure, they toss some money towards habitat improvement and research to find ways to limit interaction between hatchery and wild fish, but they don’t dedicate millions to a fish that has basically taken care of itself (as long as we stay out of it’s way).  The bulk of the money they do spend for “wild” fish also helps their hatchery fish as well, so just how dedicated are they?

Now their precious hatchery fish are looking like they’ll face the same fate. Will ODFW step up and take action to protect their hatchery broodstock? After all, we’re talking about a sizable investment of time and dollars, plus an offshore fishery that’s dependent on them. It’s really hard to “just make more” when you have no milt and eggs to work with. Under current regulations, they’re not allowed to use broodstock from a different ESU source, so unless Pres Donny J signs another Exec Order doing away with those pesky regulations, they’re out of luck.

There are rumors swirling that both UWB Spring Chinook and Winter Steelhead will be downgraded from Threatened to Endangered now, triggering more protection (and restrictions) on what ODFW can and can’t do. Of course, the current circus, I mean administration, is working hard to do away with the Endangered Species Act, so maybe the downgrade won’t mean anything.

My ideas are fairly plain and simple – shut it down.  Close angling on the North Santiam (and other UWB tributaries) for anadromous species immediately, until we get a handle on what’s happening! The status quo has changed drastically from a fish count perspective, so why maintain the status quo when it comes to inland harvest?

Another idea (very unpopular) – end the Skamania Summer Steelhead program on the North Santiam.  It’s a bust.  Spend that $150,000 per year on something that really benefits wild fish. It would be a win-win.  You stop putting an invasive species on top of an ESA listed species and have money going towards real improvement.

We have a tendency as anglers to point our fingers at everyone else as the problem.  We want everyone else to adjust and sacrifice, but not us. Until we’re willing to point that fickle finger at ourselves, nothing will change. I’m willing to support changes that would have a serious impact on my business, how about you?  It’s not so bad, I hear Victoria’s Secret has regular sales and not all of their panties are pink.

Dave

Fish Management, or lack thereof..

FYI – The information below, while focused on the North Santiam, is not an isolated instance.  This same scenario is happening in every tributary of the Willamette Basin right now.

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Winter Steelhead are now spawning in the North Santiam Basin. Normally, that would mean between 300-400 breeding pairs are doing their thing, which would translate to 300,000 – 600,000 fertilized eggs incubating in the redds over the next few months. I have no idea how many hatch, spend a year in the river, migrate to the ocean, and spend a coupe years in the salt. However, it generally means that between 600-1000 fish make it home to start it all over again. I know the start and the end. So let’s extrapolate that with what we’re likely to see four years from now.

As of the end of March (nearly the end of the run cycle), we have 60 fish above Stayton. If evenly split between male/female, we have 30 breeding pairs that should equate to 30,000-40,000 eggs in redds (river nests). Some will hatch, live in the river and go to the salt. If we apply the math above, that means in 4 years we can expect 60 or so fish to return. That’s IF everything goes well over the next 4 years – good river, estuary and ocean conditions, gillnets stay off the mainstem Columbia and none of the highly populated cities along the river system have any major sewage or chemical spills. This is as good as it gets under current management practices. We might have a self sustaining run of 60 fish (that been nearly 1,000 for the past decade or more).

We just lost over 90% of a run that’s been holding it’s own, at least for one cycle (in perpetuity).

There’s one other intangible factor in all of this that’s hard to estimate.  That would be the number of fish that are poached (intentionally or ignorantly)  each year on the North Santiam. Maybe it’s not such a big deal in a normal year.  And I don’t think it’s that large of a number – maybe 10-20 fish?  But in a year like this – that’s 15-20% of the run.  That suddenly become a pretty big deal.  Those 60 become 40, then 20, then null in a very short time period.

 For the past several years, I have been advocating for fishing regulation changes that offer some protection for these fish.  I’ve suggested we have some fishing closure windows on the North Santiam – not a popular idea.  But an opportunity for this group of fish to not be hassled, hooked, and maybe even save a few from being poached.  Afterall, it’s a lot tougher to lie your way out of a ticket by claiming that you’re fishing for some other species if the entire river is closed for a period of time.

 Who would be tasked with doing such a thing?  That would be the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.  They have the responsibility of setting policy and regulations.  In fact, this little tidbit is prominently displays on their website as the agency’s mission:

 Our mission is to protect and enhance Oregon’s fish and wildlife and their habitats for use and enjoyment by present and future generations. 

With a mission like that, you’d think that the fine folks at ODFW would be concerned that 90% of a wild run just took a nose dive.  You’d think that they would have come up with something by now, after all, we could all see this disaster taking shape as early as last December.  They did release some regulation changes on March 30 of this year. Those are:

 Willamette River and tributaries:

Beginning April 1 through July 31, 2017, the following rules apply:

  • In all areas of the Willamette River and tributaries, including flowing waters, that are open to fishing for hatchery Chinook, hatchery steelhead, trout, or warmwater gamefish, anglers with a valid 2017 Two-Rod Angling Validation may use up to two fishing rods while fishing for any game fish or non-game fish species except sturgeon. Youth anglers under 12 years of age may use two rods in these areas without purchasing the Two-Rod Angling Validation.
  • Angling for sturgeon remains restricted to the use of one rod per angler.
  • All other rules and licensing requirements specified in the 2017 Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations remain in effect.

How’s that for action?  Reminding folks to buy their 2 rod validation so they can use 2 rods. Other than that, all regulations remain in effect.  That’s like reminding the fox to bring along a buddy next time he visits the hen house!

The prospects for the next 2 years (2 cycles) is not very bright either.  Those are fish that were either fry or 1 year old (and still in the river) during the 2015 drought.  We’ve know for 2 years that those cycles are likely to take a hit, and still, nothing from the ODFW to address that possibility.

 So what’s left?  The wild fish that hatched in the North Santiam in the spring of 2016.  The river was cool and in pretty good shape when they hatched and will likely be in good shape this year as they mature and head for the salt water.  If the ocean time isn’t too rough on them, we may see our usual 600-1000 fish back.  That would leave us with 1 out of 4 cycles that hasn’t crashed. Something to be thankful for. Steelhead are resilient and have proven over and over again that they can adapt and survive, but only if we take steps to help.  In the big picture, we’ve taken some steps this year, but mostly backwards.  I hope that changes very, very soon.

 Dave

Citizen Engagement

On the Oregon Legislature website, you’ll find the following:

The connection between citizens and their government is strengthened when the public has ample opportunity to have their concerns heard by the legislature.

Admittedly, my personal political background is very limited.  I remember the 1970’s Saturday Morning Cartoon from Schoolhouse Rock titled “I’m just a Bill”, bits and pieces from High School Government Class and a weekend in Boise where “young politicians” from Idaho Schools take over the Capital and reenact the political process as elected and appointed officials.

Yesterday I took a step forward in my advocacy of wild fish here in Oregon.  I engaged the political process. The Senator from my district, Fred Girod, agreed to meet with me to discuss some introduced legislation regarding use of suction dredge mining regulation in the State of Oregon.  I have some serious concerns about the practice as I feel it is harmful to our water and to the fish that reside in it.  I shared my concerns with the Senator and although he had some issues with the wording of the legislation and would be following party lines when and if it reaches the floor of the Senate, I felt the conversation was useful.  I learned that we have some things in common.  We both own homes on the banks of a river in the same watershed.  We both enjoy the sport of angling and even though we’re not on the “same page”, we’re at least somewhere in same book.

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Following the meeting with the senator, I stuck around to attend the public hearing on the matter before the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee. As a newbie to the world of advocacy, I decided that discussing the issue with my elected representative was as far as I wanted to venture into the process for right now. I did not sign up to testify and chose to be an observer for the remainder of the day. You can follow the measure on your own and read the submitted testimony on the Oregon State Legislature website at :

https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2016R1/Measures/Overview/SB1530

Although the basic premise of the process is just like the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon portrayed it, the reality of it all is more like a weird circus – complete with tight rope walkers, side show barkers and clowns.  The amount of gamesmanship and posturing is mind boggling.  This particular committee is made up of three democrats and two republicans, and as you can imagine, the questioning of witnesses followed party lines.  The republican senators grilled the witnesses in support of the bill, the democrat senators interrogated those in opposition.  There were reasonable questions and answers throughout, but there were also times when the questions (and answers) were asked (or answered) for the purpose of intimidation, embarrassment or to outright bully the witness (or committee member).  There were a lot of facts presented, with scientific and/or economic backup to support it. There was also a whole lot of fiction and personal opinion presented as well.

I was doing pretty good at being impartial until one of the miners made the claim that suction dredges are good for the fish and the river because it loosens the gravel and is no different than a natural flood event.  I fail to see how vacuuming up spawning beds and disbursing a flume of fine sediment downstream is beneficial to fish and water quality.

The flume contains the remnants of our history of resource extraction – pesticide, herbicide and petroleum residue from logging and agriculture practices – arsenic, mercury, sulfuric acid and other toxic materials from mining practices – asbestos, solvents and salts from road runoff. How in the “@#*&%” is that good for water and fish?  This is the same water my kids swim in during the summer months!  This is the same water that is provided to my home for drinking, cooking and washing by the local water district! There’s a high profile story in the news right now regarding something very similar.  Google the words “Flint + Michigan” to learn more.

Overall, it comes down to extraction of public resources vs. protecting and conserving the environment.  Those in support of the measure are on the side of clean water, endangered species and don’t want to see the hundreds of hours of work and millions of dollars spent on habitat improvement destroyed for the sake of a few flecks of gold.  Those in opposition to the measure want to pursue their hobby based on a historical right to extract resources and not be subjected to any new rules or regulations.  They want what is “theirs”, they want it right now and they want to be able to do it under rules that were established nearly 150 years ago in the 1872 mining act.

I’d like to think that as a society we’ve learned a few things in the past century and a half. Maybe some of the ways we used to do things weren’t such a good idea and we can adjust and evolve. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If the hobby mining community can figure out a way to extract gold from my backyard without poisoning me, my family and the fish I enjoy catching, then I’m OK with it.  But until then, I’m going to keep supporting efforts to stop it.

Tight Lines.

Dave

 

Mr Magoo for President, Wile E. Coyote for Senate, Inspector Gadget for the House

The last time I voted in any election was 1992. (The presidential candidates being Bush 1/Clinton 1/Perot). Since that time, I have not stepped behind the curtain to exercise my right. I’ve gone from skeptical all the way up to completely disgusted by our political processes. I don’t see that the “will of the people” has any bearing on the system.

In lieu of voting for talking heads, I’ve gone more grassroots – supporting and engaging in local and regional organizations that have an impact on issues that are important to me. At least there, my opinions and efforts have some significance. I’ve also written a letter or two to the representatives at various levels when I feel strongly about something, but that’s as far as I’ve cared to venture into the system.

Our elected officials overstepped their bounds recently and ignored the will of the people on a huge issue. A deal to end a long running water war here in the West was hammered out “by the people” on all sides of the issue, then handed over for congressional action. Instead of rubber stamping the plan, the gamesmanship began, special interests jumped into the fray and now the plan sits collecting dust. The solution was handed to them on a silver platter and now it appears that it will rot there. All parties to the plan will now go back to court, back to protesting, back to threatening, back to war.

Today, I registered to vote. Not because I suddenly believe in the system again, but because I want to be sure that I can at least cancel out someone else’s vote, maybe even cancel out two. With the way things are looking, we will have two laughable choices for president from the traditional 2 party system.  I doubt our congressional choices will be much better.

This is not what our founding father’s envisioned. But ignoring it doesn’t work for me anymore. It feels un-american to do this, but I plan to vote in protest of a broken system. Instead of voting for the lesser of 2 evils, I’ll vote against them both. Unless acceptable candidates make it through the primaries, I will be exercising my right to vote by writing in a candidate of equal ridiculousness – fictional or otherwise.

Dave