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Wild Salmon/Steelhead Numbers Rising In Oregon’s Sandy River After 2007 Dam Removal
Posted on Friday, October 27, 2017 (PST)

More than ten years after the only major dam on the mainstem Sandy River was removed, the numbers of wild chinook and wild coho salmon, along with wild winter steelhead are beginning to build.


In some cases, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, returns of wild fish are more than double what they were a decade ago and more than they’ve been in 40 years.


The Sandy River flows from its headwaters on the west side of northwest Oregon’s Mt. Hood to the Columbia River east of Portland. The Sandy River's watershed encompasses approximately 508 square miles and includes the Bull Run River, the Salmon River, the Little Sandy River, Cedar Creek, and the Zigzag River among its tributaries.


The number of wild spring chinook rose from 1,209 the year before the dam was removed July 26, 2007, to 3,441 in 2016, the highest count of wild fish since at least 1981. The recent 3-year average abundance for wild chinook (2014 – 2016) is 2,501 fish, whereas long-term abundance (1981 – 2016) is 1,131 fish.


Wild coho numbers rose from 923 in 2006 to a high of 5,942 in 2014, but just 939 in 2016. The recent 3-year abundance for coho is 2,441, whereas long-term abundance is 997 coho.


Wild winter steelhead numbers had a similar rise: 643 in 2006 to a high of 5,488 last year, and for 2017, a particularly poor run year throughout the Columbia River basin, the count is 2,124. The recent 3-year abundance for wild steelhead is 4,094, whereas long-term abundance is 1,237.


“While not solely due to dam removal, returns of wild spring chinook, winter steelhead and coho have increased significantly as compared to their abundance before the dam was removed,” said Todd Alsbury, ODFW’s district fish biologist for the Sandy River.


Before Marmot Dam was breached, ODFW biologists would remove as many hatchery fish as possible at the dam, but without the dam they have used a portable weir to trap the fish before they can swim upstream to spawn with wild fish.


Prior to 1990, hatchery steelhead accounted for some 80 to 90 percent of fish on the spawning grounds, but that dropped to 12 percent in 1991 and to zero percent in 1999. There was a blip in 2008, just after dam breaching and prior to establishing the portable weir when the percentage rose to 29 percent. It was 10 percent in 2015, but generally has stayed at ODFW’s pHOS (percentage of hatchery fish spawning with wild fish) goal of 6 percent.


The pHOS goal for spring chinook is 10 percent, but actual pHOS has ranged widely from 10 to 73 percent before dam removal and from 5 percent (2016) to 77 percent (2010) since dam removal.


Wild spring chinook were nearly extirpated in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of dam operations, habitat loss and other human impacts, ODFW said. During this time, fishery managers used hatchery chinook to rebuild the population.


The pHOS goal for coho is 5 percent. Although a few years in the 1980s saw pHOS between 29 and 57 percent, it was generally zero during the years leading up to dam removal, but has risen since, reaching 12 percent in 2010 and 2013, but only 3 percent in 2016.


The Sandy River Hatchery, built in 1951 by ODFW, became a Mitchell Act hatchery in 1959. According to ODFW, the facility is used for the adult collection of spring chinook salmon, winter and summer steelhead and coho salmon. Winter steelhead eggs are taken and incubated until eyed stage and then shipped to other ODFW facilities. Coho eggs are taken, hatched, ponded and reared to release on station (


In February 2014, the Native Fish Society and McKenzie Flyfishers asked Oregon U.S. District Court Judge Ancer Haggerty to declare illegal NOAA Fisheries’ approvals of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife plans for Sandy Hatchery operations. They had asked Haggerty to order an end to releases of juvenile fish from the hatchery into the Sandy River and enjoin NOAA from dispersing federal Mitchell Act funds for hatchery operations.


(See CBB, February 21, 2014, “Groups Seek Court Order To Halt Oregon’s Sandy River Hatchery Releases Until New EIS, BiOp,”


The issue was resolved in December 2016 when NOAA described how it would change hatchery practices to reduce the impact of Mitchell Act hatchery fish on their wild counterparts in the Columbia River basin. Among other things, the changes were designed to reduce the number of hatchery fish that stray and spawn in the wild, thus protecting naturally spawning fish.


“We’re interested in the competition between hatchery and wild fish,” Rob Jones, head of hatcheries at NOAA’s West Coast Region, said at the time. “In addition, to hatchery effectiveness, we’re looking at hatchery release levels to reduce straying in the Columbia River basin.”


The agency proposed to reduce the overall number of tule chinook juveniles produced at both Mitchell Act and non-Mitchell Act hatcheries by about 4 million fish – about 12 percent – and actually increasing the overall number of coho salmon juveniles by over 1 million fish – 6.8 percent.


No production changes were proposed for steelhead.


(See, CBB, December 16, 2016, “NOAA Releases Proposed Changes To Columbia Basin Mitchell Act Hatchery Programs,”


The Marmot Dam on the Sandy River and the Little Sandy Dam on the Little Sandy River were removed at about the same time (2007 – 2008), opening up an estimated 50 miles of habitat that had been blocked to salmon for 100 years. The Sandy River Basin is divided between upper and lower basins delineated at the former site of the Marmot Dam (river mile 29). The upper Sandy River Basin has been designated by ODFW as a wild fish sanctuary.


In 2005 and 2006, NOAA Fisheries issued final ESA listing decisions designating four fish species that use the Sandy River Basin as threatened: the Lower Columbia River chinook Evolutionarily Significant Unit, the Lower Columbia River coho ESU, the Columbia River chum ESU and Lower Columbia River steelhead Distinct Population Segment.


The listings triggered discussions about removing the dams and reducing the number of hatchery fish as a route to recovery. The discussions, according to ODFW, also led to an integrated broodstock program where wild spring chinook were reared at the hatchery and later cross-bred with hatchery chinook “to create a fish closely resembling the native fish, instead of looking outside the basin for replacement stock with different genetics” (see the ODFW news release at


PGE already had been considering breaching Marmot and Little Sandy dams as early as the late 1990s, according to spokesperson Steve Corson, as it neared the expiration of its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license. At that time, PGE “concluded that the economic benefit of the project for PGE customers didn’t justify the costs that would likely be required through relicensing to bring the century-old project up to current standards for fish passage and survival.”


Corson added that the two dams were also high maintenance facilities with miles of tunnels and box flumes.


“The economics of upgrading it for a relatively small generating capacity were harsh,” Corson said. “Instead, the company worked with a group of affected agencies and non-governmental organizations to develop the decommissioning plan that ultimately led to removal of the dam in 2007 (and removal of the nearby Little Sandy Dam and related hydro equipment as well).


“Immediately after the dam removal PGE worked with ODFW and others to conduct studies to ensure that the decommissioning and removal of the dams did not leave any residual impediments to fish migration, or prolonged, elevated turbidity. Once these two concerns were addressed, with conditions proven to be in harmony with the river system, PGE withdrew from fisheries-related activity in the basin.”


With dam removal, another issue popped up for ODFW: how to trap hatchery fish downstream to keep them from migrating upstream where wild fish are spawning. The original fish trap was at Marmot Dam, but with that removed biologists had to net the fish using large seine nets pulled by swimmers in wetsuits for the first two years. Then they began to use the portable weirs as fish traps, which they’ve used since. After use, the weirs are removed.


Also, to continue a recreational fishery in the river, Alsbury and his staff developed an acclimation site to rear and release juvenile fish at a location suitable for returning adult fish, ODFW said.


“Our goal is to first protect native runs of salmon and steelhead while at the same time providing a robust recreational fishery,” Alsbury said. “Thanks to a lot of hard work on the part of many dedicated individuals and a lot of collaboration we are starting to see some impressive results.”


Habitat is the key, he said, saying that the Sandy River is a river where fish habitat is being added at a faster rate than it is being degraded or lost, “and that salmon are now showing up to spawn in habitat that didn’t exist before.”


Also see:


--CBB, September 9, 2016, “NOAA Fisheries Stipulates No Mitchell Act Funds For 10 Hatcheries Until Hatchery BiOp Completed,”


--CBB, August 5, 2016, “Wild Fish Conservancy Seeks Injunction To Block Use Of Mitchell Act Funds For Basin Hatcheries,”


-- CBB, April 1, 2016, “Wild Fish Conservancy Files Lawsuit To Force Federal Consultation On Basin Mitchell Act Hatcheries,”


-- CBB, January 15, 2016, “Wild Fish Advocates File Notice Against Mitchell Act Hatcheries, 60 Million Smolts Annually,”


--CBB, January 24, 2014, “Briefing Set For Sandy River Hatchery/Wild Case; Judge Wants More Details On How Weirs Reduce Strays,”


--CBB, Jan. 17, 2014, “Judge Rules NOAA Fisheries Violated ESA, NEPA In Approving Oregon’s Sandy River Hatchery Management”


--CBB, January 24, 2014, “Briefing Set For Sandy River Hatchery/Wild Case; Judge Wants More Details On How Weirs Reduce Strays,”


-- CBB, May 31, 2013, “Judge Explains Sandy River Hatchery Release Ruling; Expresses Concern Over High Hatchery Stray Rates”


-- CBB, March 29, 2013, “Judge Allows Oregon’s Reduced Hatchery Releases In Sandy River; Formal Opinion Forthcoming”


-- CBB, March 8, 2013, “Groups Ask Judge To Halt Sandy River Hatchery Releases This Spring In Wild Vs. Hatchery Case”


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