Two conservation groups on April 15 filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the state Oregon and the federal government in order to stop hatchery operations on northeast Oregon’s Sandy River they say are causing harm to wild salmon and steelhead and violating the Endangered Species Act.
The notice from the Native Fish Society and the Pacific Rivers Council claims that Sandy River Hatchery operations result in the illegal “take” of listed, wild Sandy River salmon and steelhead as a result of hatchery/wild fish interactions on the spawning grounds and through the direct illegal killing of wild steelhead to provide broodstock for the hatchery.
The Sandy River Hatchery is operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and receives federal Mitchell Act funding channeled through NOAA Fisheries.
The notice says “the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence shows that hatchery-bred fish cause indirect take by harming wild fish and degrading their habitat, preventing their survival and recovery and that of the species as a whole.”
“This notice serves to indicate our intent to sue concerning these violations if dramatic changes to the current hatchery operations -- including necessary environmental reviews before any further operations or in-stream or near-stream activities are undertaken or completed -- do not occur immediately to resolve these violations of law,” the notice says .
NOAA Fisheries also violated the ESA by not preparing an ESA biological opinion on the Sandy Hatchery program, says the notice.
BiOps are required to evaluate whether federal actions, in this case providing funding for the hatchery operations, jeopardize the survival of species that are ESA listed. Wild spring chinook, coho and steelhead are part of “evolutionarily significant units” that were listed in 1999, 2005 and 1998, respectively, and protected from take by the ESA. The spring chinook salmon and steelhead listings were reaffirmed in 2005 and 2006 after a lengthy court battle triggered a status review by NOAA Fisheries.
The Sandy River tumbles 56 miles from Cascade Mountain glaciers, entering the Columbia River just east of Troutdale at the eastern edge of the Portland metropolitan area. Sandy tributaries include the Little Sandy, Zigzag, Salmon and Bull Run rivers. The Bull Run serves as the city of Portland’s primary water source.
After operating them for almost a century, Portland General Electric removed Marmot Dam from the Sandy River, and Little Sandy Dam from the Little Sandy River in 2007 and 2008 respectively. In all the removals restored access to an estimated 100 miles of riverine habitat.
The conservation groups say that with dam removal and more than $100 million spent on habitat restoration in recent years, the time is ripe for the recovery of wild steelhead and salmon to levels nearer historic numbers in the Sandy. They say the main stumbling block is the hatchery.
“The Sandy could be a success story, but the impacts from hatchery operations must be addressed if we are genuinely interested in recovering wild fish,” said John Kober, executive director for Pacific Rivers Council. “If we can do that the Sandy will become a national model for river and fish restoration.”
“There is no ambiguity left on the Sandy. The dams are gone, the habitat is some of the best we have, fishing and logging have all changed for the better, but wild salmon and steelhead are still in trouble. The hatchery is the only factor that has not changed,” said Native Fish Society Executive Director Bill Bakke.
“Despite a consensus in this region for protecting and restoring native fish, here is a federally-funded program that even agency scientists acknowledge causes harm to ESA-listed species, but which has not gone through the required environmental reviews,” said Dave Becker, a Portland lawyer who represents the groups. “NOAA Fisheries continues to spend federal money on this hatchery even though it has not evaluated the effects on these shrinking wild fish populations, and the state continues to trap and collect wild fish without the necessary permit under the ESA.”
That review is under way as part of a broad, three-pronged evaluation of how Columbia-Snake river basin hatcheries are being run, and how they should be run, to protect listed salmon and steelhead species, according to NOAA Fisheries officials.
In the lower Columbia region, which includes hatcheries in Oregon and Washington there are 90 artificial production programs under review, including four at Sandy River Hatchery -- spring chinook and coho salmon and winter and summer steelhead.
The first of the three steps is the completion of recovery plans for listed species.
“Oregon checked that box last year,” and Washington has as well, said Rob Jones, Production and Inland Fisheries branch chief for NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Region.
The agency is amidst the second step, the development of a National Environmental Policy Act environmental impact statement that will be used to develop a policy direction that will 1) guide NMFS’s distribution of Mitchell Act hatchery funds and 2) inform NMFS’s future review of individual Columbia River basin hatchery programs under the ESA. A draft EIS was completed in August 2010 and the agency is now in the process of reviewing comments on that draft.
The third step is the development by the Oregon and Washington agencies hatchery and genetic management plans for their hatchery programs. HGMPs are described as mechanisms for addressing take of ESA-listed species that may occur as a result of artificial propagation activities. NOAA Fisheries uses the information provided by HGMPs to evaluate impacts on salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Sandy River Hatchery programs are harvest programs, used to mitigate loss of fishing and harvest opportunities due to loss of habitat and migration blockage resulting from the Columbia Basin hydropower system, and to augment fishing and harvest opportunities on the Sandy River.
Jones said NOAA Fisheries just last month received HGMPs for three of the four Sandy River Hatchery programs from ODFW and was told the fourth would soon follow. All of the information developed through the processes, and more, will be used to develop hatchery BiOps, and the Sandy River Hatchery has moved to the head of the line, largely due to the litigation threat.
“We’re willing to start the process a little early” for the Sandy programs, Jones said.
The conservation groups say that the NOAA Fisheries and ODFW have had plenty of time, nearly 13 years since the first listing.
“We’re open to and eager to talk to the agencies” about potential remedies, Kober said.