North Umpqua River PHOTO: Ryan Gallagher

Court Hits Pause on Termination of Harmful Hatchery Program

ODFW Rolls the Dice on Wild Fish Safety

PORTLAND, Ore – On May 18, 2022, a Marion County Circuit Court judge granted a preliminary injunction that pauses the elimination of the Rock Creek Hatchery summer steelhead program pending the Court’s ultimate decision on the merits of the case. The injunction also directs the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to release hatchery summer steelhead smolts this year to prevent alleged harm to the plaintiffs while the case proceeds. The judge directed the plaintiffs and ODFW to develop a plan to release these smolts in a holistic, smart, and wild fish-safe manner. The judge explained that such a plan could result in the release of 20,000 smolts or some other figure. The plan the parties developed, and that ODFW is currently implementing, is anything but safe or smart for wild fish.

On May 20th, ODFW opened the hatchery exit gates for 78,000 juvenile steelhead. ODFW did this despite the fact it recommended to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission on April 22, 2022, that it release no more than 30,000 hatchery smolts per year because releasing more than that would exceed risk management measures to protect wild North Umpqua summer steelhead. It is unclear why ODFW has more than doubled the hatchery release since their April recommendation. It makes no sense.

Despite the Court’s order to release “smolts,” ODFW is likely releasing hatchery steelhead that are transitioning back to the parr life stage. These hatchery fish are derived from the wild population, which hits its peak outmigration to the ocean in March and April. Therefore, these fish have already passed their window of physiological preparation for smolting and will likely residualize as parr in the North Umpqua River. As a result, these hatchery fish will compete for food and habitat with wild steelhead parr, many of which are the offspring of the lowest return of wild North Umpqua summer steelhead since records began in 1946.

Based on ODFW’s own declarations, it is also unclear if these hatchery steelhead have even reached size targets that ODFW associates with reduced residualization. According to ODFW, these fish are smaller than is typical for this time of year.

Through these actions, ODFW is putting all the risk of its failing hatchery program on the backs of wild North Umpqua summer steelhead, one of the most cherished wild steelhead populations on Earth.

“[T]his is nothing more than an ill-advised ecological Hail Mary, a last second shot at the basket with almost no chance of scoring. The reality is that there is no cost to these types of wild haymakers in sports, but there is in ecology and biology, because the unfit and undersized smolts will not simply go away when the clock hits double zeros,” says John McMillan, Science Director for The Conservation Angler.

The North Umpqua Coalition will continue to fight to uphold the Commission’s correct and lawful decision based on the best-available science to eliminate the Rock Creek Hatchery summer steelhead program, which has put wild North Umpqua steelhead at risk for decades. Although the Court denied the Coalition’s motion to intervene as a named party to the case, the Court is allowing the Coalition to participate by offering arguments the court may want to consider before making their ruling. This status allows the Coalition to weigh in on arguments to dismiss the plaintiffs’ legal challenge.

“For over a half century the Steamboaters, starting with folks like Frank Moore, have worked to protect and conserve the North Umpqua’s iconic run of wild summer steelhead. Joined by the members of North Umpqua Coalition, we will continue to push for the right decision to conserve these fish for future generations,” said Kirk Blaine, President of the Steamboaters and Southern Oregon Regional Coordinator for Native Fish Society.

The North Umpqua Coalition includes:

Native Fish Society * Pacific Rivers * Trout Unlimited * The North Umpqua Foundation* The Steamboaters * Umpqua Watersheds * The Conservation Angler * Wild Steelheaders United* Oregon Council of Flyfishers International

The North Umpqua Coalition is working to conserve and restore the North Umpqua River and its imperiled wild summer steelhead. The coalition’s vision is the restoration of abundant wild steelhead in the North Umpqua, which would make it the only river in Oregon with all-wild populations of both summer and winter steelhead. Our advocacy has been made possible through a grant from The Flyfisher Foundation of Oregon.

Posted in:

Conservation Hatcheries Habitat Oregon River Stewards Steelhead Wild Fish

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