Oregon fishermen, legislators embroiled in river suit

Oregon's sport fishermen are in an uproar about pending litigation that prevents them from catching wild winter steelhead along the Clackamas River. A program had been developed by state scientists that allowed the fishermen to catch a certain number of the fish in exchange for sperm and eggs for the state's hatchery projects. Now, civil litigation is threatening not only the future of sport fishing in the area, but also the future of Oregon's delicate fish hatcheries.

The suit arose after a dispute between state regulators and representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The state was required to perform a series of studies to demonstrate the safety of the sport fishing program; sign-off on a national scale was required because endangered fish were involved. However, Oregon's lawmakers allowed fishermen to begin catching fish along the prohibited waterways before the final documents were approved.

Now, fishermen will be prohibited from participating in the program that had expanded to several other rivers, including the Santiam, McKenzie and Middle Fork of the Willamette.

Fishing guides had been permitted to catch up to 40 steelhead, according to media reports. Those fish were used to bolster the genetic viability of the natural population. Biologists would breed fish that were genetically more robust, using a combination of hatchery and wild stock. Now, scientists are fearful that the fish population will suffer because of the lawsuit's stranglehold on the state's natural resources. Just 2,000 wild steelheads were counted at the North Fork Dam near Estacada; if the breeding program is not permitted to resume, that number could drop precipitously.

In addition, the restrictions could affect local fish guides' businesses. Most clients are reluctant to turn their fish over to the state. Local fishermen are concerned that even a year break in the broodstock program could affect not only their recreational opportunities, but also their ability to earn a living. The quick resolution of this problem will benefit parties on both sides of the fishing debate.

Source: The Oregonian, "Oregon fish program caught in a bind on Sandy, Clackamas rivers," Feb. 22, 2013.

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