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Groups sue over Steelhead

Claim hatchery fish harm wild stocks

Lower Deschutes Steelhead








Two environmental organizations that threatened in March to sue federal fisheries managers over releases of hatchery produced summer run steelhead in the upper Willamette River made good on their intent.

In their U.S. District Court of Oregon suit the Willamette Riverkeeper and The Conservation Angler say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in violation of the Endangered Species Act due to the impacts of its hatchery summer steelhead program on wild winter steelhead in the Willamette and Santiam rivers. The groups are asking the court to force the Corps to stop producing the summer steelhead until the agency initiates an Endangered Species Act consultation with NOAA Fisheries.

A similar claim was made in a 2012 lawsuit for McKenzie River Hatchery releases  of chinook salmon. Filed by the McKenzie Flyfishers and the Steamboaters, they claimed the release of hatchery chinook salmon “adversely affects the productivity and recovery of wild spring Chinook salmon by competing with the wild salmon for food, habitat, and spawning space, by potentially spreading disease to the wild salmon, and by creating offspring [that] have reduced fitness and reproductive success when hatchery salmon spawn with wild salmon.”

The result of that case was a court order for ODFW to come up with a plan that would set the number of hatchery smolts released into the river with a goal of reducing the proportion of hatchery origin fish on spawning grounds to 10 percent.

Willamette River wild winter steelhead were listed as threatened under the ESA in March 1999 and the two groups say the hatchery summer steelhead released from Corps-owned Marion Forks and South Santiam hatcheries and stocked for a sport fishery are contributing to the wild winter steelhead decline. Both are operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Corps is currently negotiating contracts for ODFW to continue their operations.

“There are fewer than 30 natural steelhead returning to the rivers, and it’s time for a change,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Pete Frost told Courthouse news. Frost is with the Western Environmental Law Center.

ODFW began producing the summer steelhead in the 1960s as mitigation for Corps dams in the rivers’ upper reaches and that has resulted in a decline of the wild winter run of steelhead, according to the groups.

The summer steelhead originated from the Washougal River in Washington so they are not native to the Willamette River watershed.

According to the complaint, the groups want the Corps to reinitiate consultation with NOAA Fisheries in order to address “significant new information related to the effects of Corps of Engineers’ authorization, funding, and facilitation of placing non-native summer steelhead trout into hab-itat for winter steelhead trout in the upper Willamette River basin. The plaintiffs also seek to compel the Corps of Engineers to comply with the Endangered Species Act by preventing further irreversible and/or irretrievable commitments of resources before it completes reinitiating consultation. Plaintiffs also seek to compel the Corps of Engineers to comply with the ESA by preventing further ‘take’ of winter steelhead trout by introduced hatchery rainbow trout.”

Willamette Riverkeeper had filed a similar suit in 2007 to force the Corps to consult with NOAA Fisheries about the ESA-listed winter steelhead. That suit resulted, the plaintiffs say, in a 2008 biological opinion related to the effects of federal hatcheries and dams on winter steelhead and spring chinook salmon in the upper Willamette River basin.

One of the problems cited in the complaint is that winter and summer steelhead spawn naturally in the same areas in upper Willamette River tributaries and there is an overlap in spawning times and locations, resulting in a danger of interbreeding.

“Offspring of these interbred fish are less fit. Offspring of these interbred fish are less likely to reproduce,” the complaint says.

The situation has changed since the 2008 Biological Opinion. Genetic analysis is showing that 10 percent of juvenile steelhead at Willamette Falls are hybrids of the two fish and goes on to say that 11.1 percent of steelhead returning to the North Santiam are genetically mixed and 14.8 percent are genetically mixed in the South Santiam River. The complaint says the hybridization decreases the productivity of the winter steelhead population, resulting in declines in the runs of winter steelhead. From 1990 to 2005 an average of 2,149 winter steelhead natural spawners returned to the South Santiam River.

By May 15th of 2017, just 18 winter natural spawning winter steelhead had returned to the Foster trap on the South Santiam River.

The count for the North Santiam River during the same period was similar, with an average of 2,109 winter steelhead returning to the river. By May 13th of this year, the count dropped to 142 winter steelhead at the Upper and Lower Bennett Dams, and 31 returning to the Minto fish trap.

Image Courtesy ODFW


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