Late last year the US Army Corp of Engineers (USACOE) correctly decided to end it’s subsidy that funded a Skamania Summer Steelhead program on the North Santiam River. Since the early 1970’s, millions of these out of basin, invasive fish have been dumped into Upper Willamette Basin rivers under the pretense that doing so would contribute to the Corp’s mitigation requirements. In plain terms, mitigation refers to the idea that the Corp had a responsibility to “replace” fish runs impacted by the construction of the various dams built in the 1950’s-1960’s in order to control flood waters in the basin. While I agree that the USACOE does bear that responsibility, I have historically maintained that the “replacement” fish should not be derived from a completely different river basin or of a non-native stock.
Numerous scientific studies has proven beyond any shred of doubt that Skamania Summer Steelhead have a negative impact on Wild Upper Willamette Basin Winter Steelhead. They compete with each other for food, shelter, rearing habitat and every other resource needed to complete their life-cycle. Worse yet, the two species are known to interbreed, thus reducing the fitness and survivability of the wild winter steelhead that belong in the basin. As wild steelhead runs in the basin continue to crash, nearing the point of extinction, fisheries managers have turned a blind eye to the impact these out of basin species have had. Fishing clubs falsely claiming to be “conservation” groups lobby with great vigor to preserve this program.
You may wonder why such an obviously detrimental program would continue this long and why these special interest groups would put so much effort into to prolonging it. The answer to that question is quite laughable. It is quite simply because, as their name implies, Summer Steelhead enter the river system and reside in the river for nearly a year before they spawn and complete their life-cycle. This means they are easier to pursue during the warm, dry spring, summer and fall months of the year. It takes less effort and is much more “comfortable” to fish for them as compared to pursing wild winter steelhead that enter the system in January – March and spawn shortly thereafter. During that time of year, it’s cold and wet, and the rivers are often in a condition that limits angling opportunities.
The ODFW (those charged with protecting and managing our fish species) love the program as well. It allows them to sell more fishing licenses and harvest tags, thus increasing their revenue, which is ultimately what they really want to protect and manage.
And let me be clear about another issue related to mitigation. Those replacement fish are for the purpose of increasing stocks of fish destined for the ocean, to supplement stocks whose intended purpose is to be caught by commercial fishing fleets. The dregs of those stocks are what returns to our rivers for the opportunity to be caught by inland sport anglers at the very end of the life-cycle. If stopping this detrimental program were a real threat to commercial fishing viability, we could be sure that those interests would be making a lot of noise right now. But they aren’t…. because the Skamania Summer Steelhead program does not provide any appreciable benefit to support their mitigation contribution.
I am not so naive to think that any single factor has led to the near extinction of wild winter steelhead in the Upper Willamette Basin and specifically here on my home river, the North Santiam. Numerous issues have led to their rapid decline – Habitat destruction, Hatchery practices, over Harvest and Hydropower/Flood Control/Irrigation impoundments have all had a huge impact. But instead of our fisheries managers taking on those big issues, they continue to focus on some of the minor impacts like the ridiculous idea to trap and euthanize sea lions. As we can all see now after a few months of this idiotic plan going into effect – no measurable increase in run size has occurred. It’s a bust.
But the story doesn’t end here. As part of the 2019 Oregon Legislative Session, House Representative Sherry Springer and Senator Fred Girod have jointly introduced a bill to allow the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to pick up the funding necessary to continue this program. They are suggesting that all Oregon taxpayers fund a program that only does two things – 1; contributes to the decline and eventual extinction of a iconic native species and 2; makes it easier and more comfortable for a relatively few anglers to go fishing.
Part of their attempt to justify the expenditure of our taxpayer dollars is that it will “support economically viable fisheries throughout the basin”. Keep in mind that there are no commercial fisheries in the basin, so what they are obviously referring to are guys like me – fishing guides and the businesses that we support subsequently via our business operations. As a supposed beneficiary of this program, I say this is a waste of money and I don’t want this handout from our state government. Residents of the State of Oregon do NOT need to bear the financial burden of subsidizing my small business, for basically no return or benefit. And I would further argue that continuing the program actually hurts my business in a much bigger way than reviving it would benefit me.
My business model relies on healthy populations of native, wild fish. I get the privilege of taking people from all over the country on trips down a beautiful river that offers a variety of angling opportunities. Skamania Summer Steelhead have a direct negative impact on that those other fish populations and runs (anadromous and resident species). As one of the few guides on the North Santiam still in operation, I say let the program die and please, please, do not inflict more harm on the other runs and populations of fish in the river system that will ultimately kill what little “economically viable fishery” still remains here on the North Santiam.
Needless to say, I am quite disappointed in the elected officials that represent me. They are bowing to special interests whose agenda is nothing but selfishness and greed. They want to take the easy road, fish in warm, dry weather and make all Oregonians pay the bill for their convenience and comfort. There are several other rivers within a short drive that will be continuing this harmful practice. The candy asses that want more comfortable fishing conditions can surely put forth a little bit of effort and go visit those places. My vote would be to let the North Santiam recover from this disaster. I would even go so far as to predict that if it’s left alone, it will become a REAL economically viable fishery – one that doesn’t require a subsidy from Oregon taxpayers.