It was a classic example of participatory democracy in action: volunteer organizers of a public meeting at the Mapleton Lions Club expected a large crowd to show up, so they set out about 100 chairs in the building’s auditorium. They needed more.
By the time the 4pm meeting began, all but a few of those chairs were filled and at least twenty more people were standing at the back of the room.They all had come out on a Sunday afternoon to hear representatives from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to explain a proposal that would eliminate the current practice of planting 15,000 hatchery-raised steelhead trout in the Deadwood Creek area while opening the Lake Creek fishery to allow anglers to catch wild steelhead.
When news of the proposal first surfaced in January, about 20 local residents starting meeting and created the Friends of Lake Creek Steelhead, or FoLCS for short, as an organization to keep the public informed and to represent the interests of anglers in the Siuslaw River watershed. They requested a public meeting in Mapleton and ODFW officials quickly agreed to a Feb. 10 date.
FoLCS compiled a list of 26 questions to present to ODFW staff at the meeting, based on their personal experience with fishing in Lake Creek, Deadwood Creek, Indian Creek, Greenleaf Creek, Whittaker Creek and other tributaries of the Siuslaw River. Deadwood area resident and Derek Pennel, who also chairs the Blachly School District Board, served as moderator of the meeting.
Bob Buckman, the Mid-Coast District fish biologist for ODFW, was joined by assistant district fish biologist John Spangler to explain the proposed changes and answer questions from the crowd.
According to Buckman, the proposal known as the Coastal Multi-Species Conservation and Management Plan is in the “pre-decisional draft” stage and subject to change, with two open meetings planned in Newport and Salem later this year. A public comment period will follow those meetings, and a final proposal could go before the ODFW Commission for approval in the fall.
“This plan covers a lot of areas and a lot of fish resources,” said Buckman. “There are a lot of issues that could slow this process down, so I think it’s ambitious to say that we’ll get there by the fall of 2013.”
Spangler and Buckman used a PowerPoint presentation of charts and graphs to show the department’s overall premise: coastal fish status and fisheries are in good condition overall, but hatchery releases are a risk to wild fish and a risk to conservation of the habitat.
Historically, Lake Creek and its major tributaries has been a productive catch-and-release fishery for wild steelhead along with the opportunity to harvest hatchery steelhead released every winter. The proposed change would move that the current Greenleaf Creek release of 15,000 hatchery fish further downstream into the Siuslaw River and bay.
There were no vocal supporters of the new plan at the meeting, but Spangler and Buckman heard plenty of strong vocal opposition to the change in release points and objections to the idea that hatchery fish pose any threat to wild steelhead. About two dozen individuals stood and spoke about various aspects of the issue during the two-and-a-half hour meeting. Several questions focused on the science and methods used by department staff to form the basis for their proposals. Others talked about the historic levels of fish populations and the harvest their grandparents were accustomed to seeing over the past century.
Some in the crowd offered information and opinions on topics that were not directly addressed in the plan, such as predation of migrating fish by cormorants and other predators, or the health of the streams and riparian environments that steelhead seek for spawning grounds. The cost of raising hatchery fish came under some criticism, and one person’s claim that there is no genetic difference between hatchery fish and wild fish drew strong spontaneous applause.
State Representative Wayne Krieger of District 1, which covers the southern coast from Brookings to Bandon, got the loudest applause of the evening when he ended his criticism of ODFW’s “ anti-fishing, anti-hatchery bias” by stating, “I want to have the best science behind these management programs, I do not want personal opinions or personal agendas. We have a bigger obligation to the $40 million of federal and state money in the hatchery program.”
As Spangler explained the process of trapping about 200 wild steelhead each year in order to collect 300,000 eggs for the winter broodstock program, he mentioned that after releasing the designated number of young hatchery fish back into streams, any excess fish are given to the Oregon Coast Aquarium as feed for the marine mammals housed there. That proved to be an unpopular practice with the crowd, who seemed split between two preferences of increasing the live release numbers or spreading carcasses of dead fish along upper stream banks to provide nutrients that would improve the habitat.
Buckman assured one questioner that the department wants to have a “consumptive fishery all up and down the Oregon coast.” Spangler stressed the preliminary status of the proposed plan and asked everyone to use the ODFW website to stay informed and to offer their opinions during the public review process.
Spangler also pointed out that the same number of hatchery fish would be released in the region, but downstream of Deadwood Creek and into the Siuslaw River instead. He added that Lake Creek is the best steelhead habitat in the Siuslaw watershed, and that the management plan is being designed to protect it.
“You can release as many fish as you want, but the habitat will only carry so many fish,” Spangler said. “Lake Creek has a lot of fish in it, and we’re looking at that habitat as being near maximum now.”
According to the charts presented, an estimated 4,700 wild steelhead travel up the 214 miles of river system to the falls below Triangle Lake, but only a few are strong enough to swim up the fish ladders built there in 1989. Everyone, including the ODFW staff, agreed that estimate was much higher than the actual number of wild fish that return to spawn in the system.
The folks behind FoLCS will continue to monitor the progress of the proposed plan. For more information about FoLCS or about the Coastal Multi-Species Conservation and Management Plan, call Les Benscoter at 541-964-3666 or check the links online at Deadwood-Message-Board
The ODFW has information and updates available online at dfw.state.or.us
You can also email Assistant Conservation & Recovery Program Manager Tom Stahl at thomas.stahl(at)state.or.us or call him at 503-947-6219.