Judge's ruling has big implications for region's fish, anglers

Written by Rob Davis, The Oregonian February 20, 2014 01:40 pm

 A federal judge has stepped into the middle of Oregon’s wild-versus-hatchery fish debate, ordering federal officials to do more to ensure hatchery fish planned for release this year don’t harm wild fish on the Sandy River, a key Columbia River tributary.

The decision has big implications for fish and anglers, not only on the Sandy, but throughout the West Coast. Similar lawsuits have been filed on other rivers in Oregon and in California.

The ruling could change how hatcheries are managed in both states and imperil the spring release of hundreds of thousands of juvenile salmon and steelhead from the Sandy Hatchery this year.

That could cut fish returns between 2015 and 2017 on the Sandy, a popular Portland-area river that runs from the west side of Mount Hood to the Columbia River.

The judge, Ancer L. Haggerty, ruled last week that aspects of the Sandy Hatchery’s operations were arbitrary and unlawful and need to be based on better science to ensure the recovery of threatened salmon and steelhead.

Haggerty’s order requires two conservation groups and the National Marine Fisheries Service to either strike a settlement soon or propose a schedule that would allow him to adopt a plan before hatchery fish are released this spring – a tight deadline.

The ruling came after the Oregon City-based Native Fish Society and Eugene-based McKenzie Fly Fishers sued the federal service, which approves Oregon’s hatchery operation plans. The groups claim that hatchery fish are overwhelming the Sandy River and pushing wild salmon and steelhead closer to extinction.

The groups called the ruling the most significant decision to benefit wild fish in Oregon in more than a decade. They say they don’t want fishing shut down on the river but do want to see wild fish recover.

They’ve successfully argued that too many hatchery fish are allowed to interbreed with wild fish. They say man-made weirs and other structures meant to prevent interbreeding don’t work and shouldn’t have been approved under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“There is no evidence that hatcheries have been effective in the recovery of wild populations,” said Mike Moody, executive director of the Native Fish Society. “In fact, the evidence shows they foster a slow march toward hatchery-induced extinction.”

Attention has focused on the Sandy Hatchery since two dams were removed on the river in 2007 and 2008. While their removal opened new streams for spawning fish, they also eliminated the barrier where state officials separated wild and hatchery fish.

Since then, the number of hatchery fish straying into wild fish habitat has skyrocketed.

“There is very little evidence to suggest a hatchery can restore a wild population of fish,” the judge wrote, “and the Sandy Hatchery is generally not intended to achieve any recovery goals. Rather, it is undisputed that hatchery operations can pose a host of risks to wild fish.”

Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, described the ruling as a “huge concern” because of the potential impacts on tackle shops and fishing guides if fish returns fall.

“That two-year period would be like a desert for the businesses that depend on the fisheries in that river,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know how any of us can go two years without revenues.”

The Sandy Hatchery is part of a complex and costly hatchery system meant to rebuild fish runs affected by dams in the Columbia River basin.

Historically, as many as 15,000 coho, 20,000 winter steelhead and 10,000 spring Chinook ran wild through the Sandy River each year. By 2010, that was cut to about 900 coho, 969 winter steelhead spawners and 1,330 spring Chinook.

The parties are due back in court this week.