Oregon ends a decades-old steelhead hatchery program, dismaying tribes, anglers

Last summer, wild steelhead numbers were the lowest on record in the North Umpqua River. Some hope ending the hatchery program could help wild stocks.

By: - April 25, 2022 3:31 pm

The North Umpqua River east of Roseburg (Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management/Flickr)

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission by a split vote is ending a 64-year old summer steelhead hatchery program on the North Umpqua River west of Roseburg to the dismay of anglers and several tribes. 

The commission made the decision at an April 22 meeting in an attempt to restore levels of wild summer steelhead on the river, which had their lowest count on record last summer. 

Wild steelhead are a salmonid born in freshwater that migrate to the ocean for several years before returning to freshwater to spawn. They have faced declining numbers up and down the West Coast in recent years, and by October 2021, just 449 wild summer steelhead were counted at Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua. The threshold by which the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife deems the situation critical is 1,200. 

The wild steelhead population is not down because of the Rock Creek hatchery steelhead, according to the wildlife agency, but reducing or eliminating the number of the hatchery steelhead could help increase the wild population because there’d be less competition for spawning grounds. 

Tribal officials and anglers said that because no impact to wild steelhead has been proven from hatchery steelhead, the Rock Creek program should continue. Rock Creek is also home to hatcheries of spring and fall chinook salmon, coho salmon and rainbow trout. 

The Fish and Wildlife Commission is made up of seven governor-appointed members, each from a different Congressional district and at least one from east of the Cascades and one from west of the Cascades. Their job is to establish policies that preserve and protect fish, wildlife and their ecosystems. 

Commissioners in favor of ending the hatchery program:

Chair Mary Wahl (Langlois)

Vice Chair Jill Zarnowitz (Yamhill)

Kathayoon Khalil (Portland)

Leslie King (Portland)

Commissioners opposed to ending the hatchery program:

Mark Labhart (Sisters)

Bob Spelbrink (Siletz)

Becky Hatfield-Hyde (Summer Lake)

The decision to end the Rock Creek summer steelhead fish hatchery program came down to a 4-3 vote.

Shaun Clements, the deputy administrator for the Fish Division of the state Fish and Wildlife Department, 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. 

Still, agency officials recommended the commission limit the release of smolts – young hatchery steelhead – from 70,000 to 30,000 per year.  

“Though we couldn’t find an impact, we want to lower the risk,” Clements said.

The commission considered doing nothing, pausing the hatchery’s summer steelhead program, reducing the number of hatchery steelhead released or ending the hatchery production altogether. 

The North Umpqua Coalition, a group of seven conservation organizations, recommended the commission pause the hatchery program for 10 years or end it entirely. 

At the meeting, John McMillan, science director at The Conservation Angler and a member of the coalition, shared a graph using state data to show that 19 years after the hatchery was created, numbers for wild summer steelhead began to decline and replacement rates – that is the number of new fish produced in comparison to deaths – dropped 70% from pre-hatchery levels. 

Members of the Oregon Anglers Association disputed the data, and said because there was no direct relationship found between declines in the wild steelhead population and steelhead from the hatchery, they did not see a reason it should end. They said the state should focus on reconstructing watersheds to better support wild steelhead and focus on the issues that have driven the numbers down in recent years, including fires and drought. 

The Rock Creek Fish Hatchery was enveloped by the Archie Creek fire in 2020, the largest wildfire ever recorded in Douglas County, where Roseburg is County Seat, and temperatures and sediments in the water have become problematic for fish.

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 opposed ending the hatchery program.

Closing the hatchery, they said in a written submission, would “threaten our existential need to harvest and protect steelhead and other salmonids for future generations.”

Speaking for the Coquille Tribe, lawyer John Ogan said that “given the low abundance, up and down the coast, of the naturally spawning population, we rely on the hatchery for ceremonial and subsistence use.”

He said the commission would be asking the tribe, which had been terminated by the federal government in 1954 and had their tribal status restored in 1989, to suspend a cultural revitalization. 

“Reconnecting with fish and with wildlife is at the heart of it,” he said. 

Clements of the state Fish and Wildlife Department said, “The magnitude of the fish’s revival depends on freshwater conditions, how quickly the drought breaks or whether it does at all,” he said. “The population can rebound if the conditions allow.” 

Michelle Dennehy, communications coordinator at the state Fish and Wildlife Department, said in an email that staff are planning for the end of the Rock Creek summer steelhead hatchery program. There are summer steelhead smolts at Rock Creek Hatchery, but per the new policy they will not be released into the North Umpqua, according to Dennehy.

“We are still working out what will happen to these smolts,” she said. 

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.