ODFW is confirming that hatchery summer steelhead smolts will be released into the North Umpqua system after a judge yesterday granted a preliminary injunction to do so. It follows a Fish and Wildlife Commission decision last month to end the program that is also being challenged.
The agency says the release will occur “consistent with the court order” from Marion County Circuit Court Judge Christopher Wren, “which is expected to be issued by the end of the week.”
The order has yet to be finalized, but according to a press release last night from hatchery opponents The Conservation Angler, Wren is requiring the development and implementation of a “‘wild fish-safe’ plan.” A memo from the organization today claims it is biologically too late to release the fish and could harm other young fish in the system as the smolts residualize.
Douglas County, the Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby and fishing guide Scott Worsley had filed for a preliminary injunction to halt the commission’s 4-3 April 22 decision to not release smolts into the North Umpqua watershed this year and eliminate the Rock Creek Hatchery’s summer-run program as their late April lawsuit underwent a broader review by the judge.
In that suit, they argue that commission did not present enough evidence to make their decision and it subverted a coastal fish management plan, according to a local radio station.
ODFW has released on average 78,000 smolts in recent years, but had proposed reducing that to 30,000 and fixing Rock Creek infrastructure to address hatchery stray rates above plan goals.
North Umpqua summer steelhead are hurting, as are stocks up and down the US and Canadian west coasts in recent years due to environmental conditions in their natal streams and at sea. Last year saw the fewest counted at Winchester Dam on the lower river by a very long shot.
Still, agency scientists found “no evidence that the hatchery summer steelhead program negatively affected naturally produced summer steelhead,” nor was it limiting the wild population’s recovery.
Yesterday’s initial action by Judge Wren is a rare win for hatchery proponents. The court system is typically used as a cudgel by the other side, particularly in Washington, to drive down steelhead and salmon production over concerns for wild fish populations, but in some cases out of apparent spite.
“In light of this development, the commission intends to delay to a future (yet to be determined) date the special meeting to discuss information received from various tribes and other comments related to the Rock Creek summer steelhead hatchery program that was requested at its last meeting on May 13,” ODFW stated.
Editor’s note: Updated 3:48 p.m., May 19, 2022, to correct overly broad language in the first paragraph and add information from a TCA memo on the release of smolts in the third.