Southwest Oregon county officials, derby organizers and a local fishing guide have filed papers to have a circuit court go over the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission’s elimination of a popular hatchery steelhead program on a North Umpqua tributary.
The Douglas County Board of Commissioners, Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby and Scott Worsley are asking for an expedited review as well as a court order to prevent ODFW from disposing of any summer-run smolts meant to be released this year from Rock Creek Hatchery, according to Roseburg media outlets.
They argue that the fish commission did not present enough evidence to make their 4-3 vote last Friday that also went against the recommendation of ODFW staff, which had proposed instead to reduce production from an average of 78,000 smolts to 30,000, and subverted standing fish management plans, radio station KQEN reported.
And they say the citizen panel overseeing ODFW ignored the best available science which found “no evidence that the hatchery summer steelhead program negatively affected naturally produced summer steelhead,” nor was it limiting the wild population’s recovery, as well as set aside local community and tribal needs, according to KQEN.
“They completely ignored their own staff and went with their decision,” Douglas County Commissioner Tom Kress told The News-Review, which broke the news last night.
Worsley was among those who gathered over 3,000 signatures asking the Fish and Wildlife Commission not to reduce releases. The Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby donates all proceeds “to local fish restoration and education projects” in the watershed.
The Douglas County officials, derby organizers and Worsley are represented by Carollo Law Group, which bills itself as representing “industries, businesses, landowners and local governments with relationships to the timber, agriculture, water, mining and other natural resource sectors.”
Filing a lawsuit takes a page out of the other side’s playbook.
The petition was filed in Marion County Circuit Court, according to the newspaper, which reports the plaintiffs are seeking an “immediate and expedited” review.
Spring is the time of smolt releases and at some point if the young fish aren’t let go, they residualize and won’t go to sea. None were released last year after 2020’s Archie Creek Fire swept through Rock Creek Hatchery, heavily damaging it.
The program has been around since the late 1950s and provides a beloved opportunity that augments a destination wild steelhead fishery.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission’s decision was one that shocked and outraged consumptive anglers, but was also hailed by others as helping recover wild North Umpqua steelhead.
“The continued presence of hatchery fish on the spawning beds would have slowed the recovery and depressed the eventual size of the wild steelhead run,” said Karl Konecny, a Steamboaters board of directors member.
According to ODFW, recent years’ low returns are primarily due to poor ocean conditions that are also affecting summer steelhead up and down the US and Canadian West Coast, along with less productive river conditions over multiple years, including 2021, which saw high water temperatures. Biologists note that the native run “remains viable and has the capacity to rebound if environmental conditions improve.”
Still, ODFW brass recommended reducing smolt releases as well as work to boost the removal of hatchery steelhead from the system. Under ODFW’s coastal management plan, pHOS levels, or percent of hatchery-origin spawners, are supposed to be 10 percent or less in the wild, but averaged 17 percent over the last nine years.
In its weekly newsletter, the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association said it was “extremely disappointed in this decision, given the ongoing struggles of both wild and hatchery steelhead stocks up and down the West Coast,” and with local communities having lost so much with the wildfire, added that the “shift to a court room is understandable.” The organization said that it is looking for future solutions and discussions around the rebuilding of the hatchery.
Voting to eliminate production there were Commission Chair Mary Wahl, Vice Chair Jill Zarnowitz and Commissioners Kathayoon Khalil and Leslie King.
Voting against it were Commissioners Becky Hatfield-Hyde, Mark Labhart and Robert Spelbrink.