ODFW Commission votes to end steelhead hatchery program on North Umpqua

Area resident Evan Moso, CEO of Spin-X Designs Tackle, shows a hatchery steelhead that was pulled from a trap at Whittaker Creek. (Courtesy photo)

Group files legal petition seeking judicial review of decision

April 29, 2022 — In a split 4-3 vote at their meeting in Astoria on April 22, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) Commissioners decided to not release hatchery summer steelhead smolts into the North Umpqua this year and to eliminate the Rock Creek summer steelhead hatchery program.

The vote ends this hatchery program as it will be the second year in a row of no hatchery summer steelhead smolts being released on the North Umpqua. None were released in 2021 due to wildfire impacts.

The commission made the decision to increase levels of wild summer steelhead on the North Umpqua. Last summer, steelhead were at the lowest level since counting began.

The ODFW did not argue the numbers were down because of the hatchery program, but hoped reducing the number of hatchery steelhead would decrease the level of competition wild steelhead face.

At the meeting, testimony was heard from panels representing those wishing to keep the program going and also those who wished to end it. Representatives of local Tribes also spoke, along with local politicians and the public.

A written statement submitted by the chairs of the Coquille Indian Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians said that closing the hatchery would “threaten our existential need to harvest and protect steelhead and other salmonids for future generations.”

The commission considered these choices: doing nothing, pausing the hatchery’s summer steelhead program, reducing the number of hatchery steelhead released or ending the program all together.

In October 2021, only 449 wild summer steelhead were counted at Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua. ODFW calls the situation “critical” anytime numbers drop below 1,200.

Most who opposed ending the program said the no impact from the hatchery steelhead on wild steelhead numbers have been proven.

Even one of the ODFW’s administrators seemed to agree.

Shaun Clements, the deputy administrator for the Fish Division of the ODFW, told commissioners that numbers of wild summer steelhead in the North Umpqua River had been declining primarily due to poor river and ocean conditions from fires, drought and rising and often unpredictable water temperatures due to climate change. 

John McMillan, science director at The Conservation Angler and a member of the coalition, spoke in favor of ending the program. He showed a graph that indicated in the 19 years after the hatchery program was created, replacement rates, which is the number of new fish produced in comparison to deaths, dropped 70% from before the hatchery program.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission consists of seven members appointed by the governor for staggered four-year terms. One commissioner must be from each congressional district, one from east of the Cascades and one from the west of the Cascades.

Commissioners Mary Wahl, Jill Zarnowitz, Kathayoon Khalil and Leslie King voted to end the program. Commissioners Mark Labhart, Bob Spelbrink and Becky Hatfield-Hyde were opposed.

State Rep. Boomer Wright represents the district spanning from the north end of Yachats to the south of Coos Bay. He spoke in objection to ending the program at the meeting and voiced his concerns after the vote had been cast on his Facebook page.

“We have fewer steelhead and other salmon, so the best we can do is close hatcheries because they produce an abundance of fish?” questioned Wright. “According to the ODFW, the steelhead population is not down due to the number of hatchery steelhead, but environmental factors including climate change and wildfires. So, it makes sense to produce fewer fish so we can have more fish? Seems like the ODFW is using the new math now in our schools.”

On Tuesday, April 26, the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, the Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby and local fishing guide Scott Worsley filed a legal petition seeking judicial review of the decision to end the program.

The petition claims the ODFW “failed to support its decision with substantial evidence, including ignoring its own staff recommendation and ODFW’s determination that terminating the program would provide no benefit to wild fish and ignored multiple management directives and objectives in the existing fisheries management plans.”

Local anglers were also concerned by the commission’s decision.

“Are ODFW’s actions based on their Mission Statement, or personal biases of its commission?”, asked Florence resident Ed Scarberry in a discussion regarding the decision on Facebook. “A 4-3 vote doesn't sound like overwhelming agreement.”

The commission’s April meeting can be viewed in full at www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DihXupIBXA. The next meeting is May 13 and will be virtual.

For more information, go to www.dfw.state.or.us.