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Hatchery ruling cites ‘reduction in stray rates’

Sandy RiverNext challenge could be on the McKenzie

PORTLAND: The release of hatchery raised salmon and steelhead into the Sandy River can proceed largely as planned according to a federal judge, who in a March 14th opinion denied an injunction request from fish conservation groups that said the releases should be stopped to prevent harm to wild stocks.

U.S. District Court Judge Ancer L. Haggerty also denied a request that said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries’ approvals for 2012 ODFW “Hatchery Genetic Management Plans” for four salmon and steelhead stocks produced at the hatchery should be vacated.

The challenge for the hatchery-produced stocks included using weirs to capture and remove hatchery fish from streams before they can stray. Cited as well was site specific acclimation to re-duce the number of hatchery fish that might stray onto spawning grounds.

“While NMFS failed to adequately explain its decisions, it appears that the agency’s predictions largely proved correct,” Haggerty said. “In light of the dramatic reductions in stray rates realized by ODFW since implementation of the HGMPs, it appears that NMFS’ failures were largely failures to explain, rather than failures to apprehend, the nature of the obstacles created by operation of the Sandy Hatchery,” his order said. “These errors can be corrected through additional explanation and were more procedural, than substantive, in nature. As such, the court finds NMFS’ errors to have been relatively minor.”

Native Fish Society Executive Director Mike Moody commented that, “Although the Court recognized that NMFS’s evaluation of the current hatchery plans was flawed and further restricted hatchery fish releases, we are disappointed that the court didn’t take more decisive action to prevent further declines in Sandy River salmon and steelhead while the agencies comply with NEPA and the Endangered Species Act,” Moody said.

Native Fish Society, an Oregon City-based conservation group, along with Eugene-based McKenzie Fly Fishers, filed the federal lawsuit in February of 2012 against ODFW and NMFS (NOAA Fisheries) challenging the management of the Sandy River fish hatchery.

 “There’s some indication that the court is warning NMFS needs to be particularly careful in its next round of review and consider potential legal liability if it does not prepare a full scale EIS which should give the federal agency some pause as it moves forward in reviewing the new plans,” said David Becker, attorney for the Native Fish Society.

“Our goal in this case was to make sure that among   the    competing priorities of fishery management, conservation of Oregon’s native fish would receive a fair hearing,” said Arlen Thomason, conservation chair for the McKenzie Flyfishers. “We appreciate the careful consideration that the court has given this matter.”

Moody added, “Native Fish Society brought this suit on behalf of the citizens of Oregon. We are not trying to close down fishing of any kind, but rather to ensure recovery of wild fish. The actions we brought focused on the hatchery on the Sandy River. Our objective is recovery of wild, native fish. For us, it’s about the fish.”

“We feel this is a win today for anyone who fishes along the Sandy River and in the entire estuary,” said Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association Executive director Liz Hamilton. “The NSIA’s core mission is to protect and enhance sport fisheries, and well-run hatcheries are an integral part of that. As an organization working to protect wild salmon, we know that the hatchery versus wild debate is a false choice.”

“The hatchery program on the Sandy River makes it possible for a family to take home a fish, which leads to a love of Oregon’s natural beauty and the protection of wild fish,” Sandy River guide Jack Glass said. “We want to protect wild fish, releasing them unharmed, and plentiful hatchery fish buffer our impact on the native fish as long as our hatcheries are managed wisely.”

Hamilton said ruling is encouraging as her organization prepares filings for another lawsuit – a McKenzie Flyfishers challenge of hatchery releases from ODFW’s McKenzie Fish Hatchery into the McKenzie River. Conservation groups say that ODFW has never sought the required federal permits to ensure that its hatchery does not conflict with the goal of restoring wild spring chinook in the McKenzie.

Image above: Photo Courtesy Sandy River Basin Watershed Council. Recent challenges to fish hatchery operations on the Sandy River could have implications locally.


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