Conservationists Ask State to Study Impacts of McKenzie Hatcheries on Imperiled Wild Spring Chinook Salmon

Eugene, OR –(ENEWSPF)–November 6, 2012. The Western Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the McKenzie Flyfishers, today sent a notice of intent to sue to the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) for operating two fish hatcheries on the McKenzie River that harm wild Chinook salmon without having studied the impacts of hatcheries and obtaining federal approval to operate them.

The McKenzie River is cherished as a source of drinking water, for its varied recreational values, and as home to native wild spring Chinook salmon. Federal fish biologists have found that the McKenzie provides the best remaining habitat in the Willamette River basin for wild spring Chinook salmon, which were listed under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) as threatened with extinction in 1999.

“We ask ODFW to make transparent decisions for how it operates its hatcheries in order to save wild Chinook,” said Dave Thomas of McKenzie Flyfishers. “We cannot afford business as usual when wild Chinook face extinction.”

ODFW operates two hatcheries that breed and release hatchery fish into the McKenzie. The McKenzie River hatchery breeds and releases hatchery Chinook salmon. Fish biologists – including those within ODFW – have found that hatchery salmon compete with wild salmon for food, habitat, and spawning space, and can spawn with wild salmon, diluting their genetic integrity. The Leaburg hatchery breeds and releases steelhead and rainbow trout. Hatchery trout are voracious, and data indicate that hatchery trout in the McKenzie consume a significant number of young wild spring Chinook in the river.

These impacts constitute illegal “takes” under the ESA. ODFW may avoid liability for its hatchery operations only if it obtains a federal Hatchery and Genetic Management Plan or other federal authorization, after public notice and comment.

ODFW states that its top priority is to protect and restore native salmon. The mission stated in the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds is to restore “Oregon’s native fish populations and the aquatic systems that support them to productive and sustainable levels that will provide substantial environmental, cultural, and economic benefits.” But ODFW has never obtained – through a public process – the required permits to ensure that its hatchery operations will in fact restore wild spring Chinook in the McKenzie.

“We hope ODFW will commit to comply with the ESA so no lawsuit will be necessary,” said Pete Frost, attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “But we stand ready to ensure that wild Chinook are truly on a road to recovery.”

The Western Environmental Law Center is a non-profit public interest law firm that works to protect and restore western wildlands and advocates for a healthy environment on behalf of communities throughout the West.

Source: Western Environmental Law Center