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New low-flow regs would close Russian River fishery automatically

California Fish and Wildlife officials are proposing regulatory changes that would trigger automatic closure of the Russian River fishery when stream flows fall low enough to threaten fish habitat, as they did last winter.

The aim is to protect rare migratory fish species from the stress of humans meddling in their habitat when the fish already are struggling to survive in unfavorable conditions, officials said.

The proposal would extend to the Russian River the kind of low-flow restrictions that already govern coastal streams across northern and central California, many of which are closed to angling during winter months when river flows fall to designated thresholds established by the state.

“It would make the Russian exactly the same as how all the other rivers function,” said Ryan Watanabe, a fisheries biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The department has announced two public meetings on the North Coast next week, including one Wednesday in Santa Rosa, to take input on proposed changes.

They include a move to tie fishery closures on Salmon Creek and other coastal streams in Northern California to flow rates on the Gualala River instead of the Russian River, which is currently used to measure baseline flows the region. The draft changes also would extend the timeline during which North Coast streams would be subject to closure, from Oct. 1 to April 30. The window currently closes April 1.

The regulations are another consequence of an unremitting three-year dry spell that has cast the entire state into drought, threatening agricultural production and precipitating the recent imposition of mandatory water conservation measures statewide.

The below-average rainfall has further imperiled beleaguered populations of wild coho salmon, chinook salmon and steelhead trout, all of which already are listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Fishermen are buzzing about the regulations, voicing support for some of the measures and questions about others.

Scott Heemstra, manager at King’s Sport & Tackle in Guerneville, said the proposed package is “a hot topic” in the Russian River fishing community.

He and store clerk Dave Delmue, both members of the Russian River Wild Steelhead Society, a wildlife stewardship organization, said they generally supported the notion of updating low-flow fishing restrictions to include the Russian River, depending on the details. Tying closures farther north to flow rates in the Gualala River, instead of the Russian, “only makes sense,” Heemstra said.

But he said there would likely be controversy over the minimum flow rates established to trigger closures. Both thought reaction in the wider fishing community would also hinge on the timeline, since bass fishermen could be affected by autumn closures, and steelhead, which run later, are so popular.

During the past two winters, salmon entering North Coast rivers encountered shallow conditions that hindered their migration upstream, stranding them in crowded pools where they were subjected to heavy pressure from fishermen, Fish and Wildlife officials said.

“In both years, the Russian River and North Central Coast streams have dropped to mere trickles, yet have remained open to fishing till an emergency closure was enacted,” agency spokesman Andrew Hughan said.

In the lower Russian, conditions were so clearly contradictory to fish survival that many anglers decided on their own to put their rods down.

Others flocked to the spots where fish were concentrated even as wildlife officials expressed dismay and pursued an emergency closure.

A fishing ban finally took effect Feb. 21, weeks after it was first proposed, prohibiting fishing through the main stem of the river, from its confluence with the East Branch of the Russian River near Ukiah to Jenner, where the river meets the sea.

The same action by the Fish and Game Commission also extended closure of other North Coast streams through April 30, beyond the April 1 date during which the streams are normally subject to closures.

The package of proposed low-flow restrictions offered for public review includes extending the possible closure date to April 30 permanently.

Changing the regulation would avert the kind of delay inherent in formulating an emergency regulation, which involves bringing it before the Fish and Game Commission for approval and moving it through the Office of Administrative Law so it can go into effect.

It also would have built-in flexibility that would allow the fishery to reopen without the same rigmarole of public hearings and a commission vote, Watanabe said. The return of rain and rising river flows would prompt the reopening automatically.

Heemstra and Delmue said it would be hard for some to accept closures on the Russian River, where steelhead trout raised in tax-funded hatcheries are available for catching and eating.

But it “does mitigate the amount of pressure that’s put on the threatened and endangered fish in the system,” Heemstra said. “I have no problem with it, especially after last year. We had such low flows.”

“In my mind, it’s a good thing,” Delmue said.

Watanabe said revisions to existing low-flow fishing restrictions are being considered separately for coastal Mendocino County rivers, including the Garcia, Noyo, and Navarro rivers.

Watanabe said public input from Sonoma and Marin counties could shape the final proposal submitted to the appointed Fish and Game Commission, which holds the power to approve it.

Officials hoped the commission will take up the matter at its Dec. 3 meeting in Van Nuys.

The first public meeting on the regulations is set for 2 p.m., July 30, at the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in Santa Rosa.

The second meeting is set for 3 p.m., July 31 at the Gualala Community Center.

Comments may also be submitted by email to ryan.watanabe@wildlife.ca.gov or by mail, to California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Bay Delta Region, Attn: Ryan Watanabe, 5355 B Skylane Drive, Santa Rosa 95403.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 ?or mary.callahan?@pressdemocrat.com. ?On Twitter @marycallahanb

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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