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Groups Ask Judge To Halt Sandy River Hatchery Releases This Spring In Wild Vs. Hatchery Case
Posted on Friday, March 08, 2013 (PST)

Fish conservation groups seeking a permanent end to hatchery produced salmon and steelhead in northwest Oregon’s Sandy River basin have asked a federal judge, in the near term, to preempt the planned release of several hundred fish later this month.

The Native Fish Society and McKenzie Flyfishers on Feb. 19 filed a request in Oregon’s U.S. District Court asking for a temporary restraining order and/or preliminary injunction that forbids the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife from setting hatchery smolts free in the Sandy or its tributaries this spring.

The groups say that the releases and other hatchery-related activities illegally result in harm – take – of protected fish stocks.

The groups want immediate action to prevent additional take of naturally produced fish that are listed under the Endangered Species while legal arguments play out regarding the operation of the Sandy Hatchery.

The hatchery is located on Cedar Creek about three-quarters of a mile above its confluence with the Sandy River, which is 22 miles upstream from the Sandy River’s confluence with the Columbia.

The groups in October filed a complaint in U.S. District court asking that Sandy Hatchery operations be declared illegal. Legal arguments in that case have yet to take place.

Judge Ancer Haggerty has given the defendants -- state of Oregon and NOAA’s Fisheries Service – until today (March 8) to respond to the motion. The Native Fish Society and McKenzie Flyfishers will then have until March 15 to respond.

The judge has set a hearing for March 20, and won state agreement that no hatchery fish will be released in the Sandy basin before March 23.

NOAA Fisheries in September gave its approval to state generated “hatchery genetic management plans” for Sandy Hatchery operations and issued an ESA biological opinion that ruled planned operations are legal under the ESA, with qualifications.

In 2005 and 2006, NOAA Fisheries designated four species that historically spawned in the Sandy River basin as threatened under the ESA. Those listed stocks include Lower Columbia River chinook, LCR coho and Columbia River chum salmon “evolutionarily significant units and the LCR steelhead “distinct population segment.”

The Sandy Hatchery produces spring chinook and coho salmon and summer and winter steelhead for release into the river and tributaries. The focus of the artificial production is to provide sport fisheries. The summer steelhead are not native to the Sandy basin.

NOAA Fisheries funds the hatchery’s operations with appropriations through the federal Mitchell Act. It is also charged with assuring that state actions – such as hatchery operations and the provision of fisheries – won’t jeopardize the wild fish stocks’ chances of survival.

The conservation groups say the Sandy is a great place to try rekindle wild stocks that are depleted to the point of requiring ESA protection. The opportunity to foster wild chinook, coho and steelhead population growth has become even greater since 2007 when two dams were removed from the Sandy system. The removals opened access to about 50 miles of additional quality habitat for the species.

In a Feb. 19 memorandum to the court in support of its motion, the groups say that “Scientific studies of hatchery operations consistently conclude that hatchery fish pose a threat to wild fish, and by extension to the survival and the recovery of wild fish populations.”

The cross breeding of hatchery fish and wild fish on the spawning grounds can have substantial genetic risks that affect the fitness, productivity and genetic diversity of wild populations, the groups say. A mingling can also create competition for food and space, and could have the potential for spreading disease.

“In addition, the operation of artificial barriers to migration, such as the weir/traps state defendants are using to attempt to control the spring chinook stray rate, harms wild fish by delaying upstream migration, forcing fish to spawn prematurely in stream reaches containing high concentrations of redds, and physically harming fish by handling them during the trapping and sorting process,” the plaintiffs’ memo says.

Prior to Marmot Dam’s removal, its fish ladder was used to sort fish, with marked hatchery fish not allowed to pass and wild fish given a boost over the dam and set free. Since the dam’s removal, the state biologists concentrated efforts on the use of weirs to corral hatchery fish and help reduce their straying onto the spawning grounds.

Those efforts have failed to hold straying below levels outlined in NOAA Fisheries BiOp, the memo says.

The lawsuit takes to task the state for implementing the hatchery program and NOAA Fisheries for allowing that to happen without evaluating all the “relevant factors” that pose the risk of illegal take of protected wild fish.

The plaintiffs say that much needs to be sorted out in the legal process. Meanwhile an injunction is needed to stop this year’s chinook, coho and steelhead releases and avoid “irreparable harm” to the wild fish populations, and harm to the groups and their members, the memo says.

“Irreparable harm will result from the release of hatchery fish that will return to cause genetic and ecological harm to wild fish present in the system,” the memo says.

“Any economic interest that defendants have in continuing releases of hatchery fish into the Sandy River basin for recreational fishing is outweighed by the harm to wild fish and to the public from the inadequate and unlawful NEPA process,” the memo says. The plaintiffs accuse NOAA Fisheries, in giving its approvals, with violating the National Environmental Policy Act as well as the ESA.

“The smolts produced at the Sandy Hatchery can be transferred to other streams and provide equivalent recreational fishing opportunities in those areas,” the memo says.

For more information, see:

CBB, Oct. 26, 2012, “Sandy River Hatchery: Agencies Say Impacts To Wild Fish Low, Others Say Keep Hatchery Fish Out”

CBB, April 22, 2011, “Groups File Notice To Sue Over Sandy River Hatchery, Contends Harms Wild Salmon, Steelhead”

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