By Spencer Miles
Over the past decade countless organizations -- including Portland General Electric, the city of Portland, Western Rivers Conservancy and The Freshwater Trust -- have spent more than $75 million on Sandy River habitat restoration with a long-term goal of recovering wild fish. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, on the other hand, continues to show more interest in protecting its harmful hatchery programs than in protecting our native fish. The results have been catastrophic.
Wild salmon and steelhead in the Sandy River desperately need our help. Native winter steelhead that once numbered 20,000 fish are now hanging on by a thread with a population of only 800 fish. Spring chinook are in even worse shape, having gone from a historic abundance of 29,000 fish to 750 today. Sandy River spring chinook, fall chinook, winter steelhead and coho are all listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and chum salmon are extinct.
For the past 40 years fisheries biologists have known that hatchery fish are extremely harmful to wild fish. A river can only support a finite number of fish, and over time, hatchery fish simply drive wild fish toward extinction. The ODFW fish commission continues to operate with little regard for science or the well-being of our endangered wild fish. This spring, about 1,250,000 hatchery-raised salmon and steelhead will be released into the Sandy.
In 1997 ODFW's abundance goal for the upper Sandy was 4,900 wild winter steelhead. By 2010 this number has been administratively reduced to a goal of 1,515 wild winter steelhead for the entire Sandy basin. Despite greatly improved habitat, these endangered fish are being managed out of existence.
At a recent ODFW meeting in Salem, Assistant Fish Division Administrator Bruce McIntosh stated that annual releases of 240,000 hatchery steelhead is a reasonable number for supporting a recovery of wild fish. The ODFW has been annually planting the Sandy with 240,000 hatchery steelhead for decades, and wild steelhead runs have declined precipitously as a result.
Albert Einstein once quipped that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. In a recent interview with the Portland Tribune, ODFW District Biologist Todd Alsbury stated that reducing hatchery programs on the Sandy is a "last resort." Are four endangered species and one extinct species not grounds for this "last resort"? Must we wait for more extinctions before ODFW breaks from the status quo and starts protecting Oregon's salmon and steelhead?
It is time for the ODFW to stop ignoring the science and its responsibility under the law and truly commit to a restoration of Sandy River salmonids. Dozens of organizations have recognized the importance of these fish by giving more than $75 million to improve their habitat. If future generations are to ever witness a spawning salmon, the ODFW must take accountability for its deleterious hatchery program and designate the Sandy as a wild salmon sanctuary. Oregon will be a better place for it.