Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Are Wild Chinook becoming Extinct on the Sandy River

Hatchery Chinook on Still Creek

The last two weeks of September I spent my time on a few Sandy River tributaries such as Still Creek, Zig Zag, and the Salmon River conducting spawning surveys for Chinook. What I saw was a sad state of afare for wild Chinook.
As I walk down the river, eyeing a fish carcass to process in the distance, my hope it is that it is not another hatchery fish, as my distance closes in on the carcass, it is another hatchery, my heart would drop. I estimate about a 70 to 80% hatchery stray rate during these surveys. One of the many questions I would ask myself during this time is; if ODFW intends to allow the strays in the upper basin, why take brood stock? (ODFW take 10% of the wild fish for brood stock).

In April the Native Fish Society and Pacific Rivers Council filed a 60-Day Notice Pursuant with the intent to file suit against ODFW (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) and NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) for the violations of the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act in funding and operation of the Sandy River Hatchery in Sandy Oregon..
Historically, runs of native fish to the Sandy River Basin ranged as high as 15,000 Coho, 20,000 winter steelhead, 10,000 fall Chinook and 8,000 to 10,000 spring chinook. However, despite the fact that two 100 year-old dams have been removed, opening up 30 miles of the watershed, and nearly $100 million is being invested in habitat improvements by many parties, and the other protections afforded the areaChinook, Coho and steelhead populations continue to decline. Many streams in the Sandy River Basin (including the Sandy River, Salmon River, Zigzag River, and Still Creek) have been designated as critical habitat for Lower Columbia River Chinook and Steelhead.

The survey conducted on the Zig Zag River from the weir downstream to the the confluence of the Sandy River, approximately 81 redds where counted and above the weir 48 redds counted (ODFW put weirs in the upper basin to capture hatchery fish. The weir on the Zig Zag was placed about 2 miles up river from the confluence of the Sandy River the other weir was placed on the Salmon River about one mile above the confluence of the Sandy River.) Why are the weirs placed so high up in the system, I can only guess, easier access to brood stock?
Number of Chinook carcasses processed on the Zig Zag River wild vs hatchery.
Reach 1 wild 0 hatchery 5
Reach 2 wild 8 hatchery 2
Reach 3 wild 12 hatchery 25
Total wild 20 hatchery 32

Having the opportunity to observe Chinook spawning, it became obvious to me that hatchery fish are competing with the wild fish for spawning ground. Spawning gravel is limited and in some places there were multiple redds on top of one another.

Another question I would ask is; what is the success rate of hatchery fish spawning in the wild? If hatchery fish are going to continue spawning in the upper basin and hatchery fish are successful, then why continue running the hatchery?
Since Marmont Dam has come out the stray rate has been about 80-90 percent. It’s hard to imagine the wild Chinook population rebounding from what I have witnessed. Is Sandy River Chinook population on its way to becoming extinct or is there a chance?
From what I can tell, production levels and management practices at the Sandy Hatchery continue to adversely impact the natural populations in a manner that constitutes an unlawful taking under the ESA. What do we do about this?

Recently I spoke with Mark Sherwood at the Native Fish Society and he said the 60 day notice was successful. The agencies have agreed to review the Sandy River hatchery to see if it complies with the ESA under a process called "Hatchery Genetic Management Plans." (HGMP) Plus they made some very moderate changes to the hatchery operations itself, for example ending the wild broodstock harvest.
NFS will be watching the outcome of the HGMP process very closely and will determine whether to pursue future legal action if the process results in the continued decline of wild salmon and steelhead at the hands of the hatchery. NFS will be calling on our supporters and volunteers to help provide feedback to the agencies on the HGMPs when they are open for public comment.