Sandy River Steelhead
Ed Hepp and Tom Larimer of Oregon's Larimer Outfitters with a Sandy River steelhead.

Wild fish advocates all over the country and world have, for many years, been arguing that stocking hatchery fish in waters where wild fish populations exist poses a threat to those wild fish. As of yesterday, it appears as though the courts in the state of Oregon agree.

Via a ruling by District Court Judge Ancer Haggerty, the court sided with the the Native Fish Society and the McKenzie Flyfishers which claimed that hatchery operations on Oregon's Sandy River were harmful to the Sandy's wild steelhead and salmon, resulting in the defendants -- the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Marine Fisheries Service -- being in violation of both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Mike Moody, director of the Native Fish Society, noted in a statement released yesterday that "the science is irrefutable. The law is irrefutable. And, Judge Haggerty affirmed this. This is the most significant decision benefiting wild fish in Oregon in over a decade." Moody quoted Haggerty's ruling, which stated that "it is undisputed that hatchery operations can pose a host of risks to wild fish… it is clear that the Sandy River Basin is of particular importance to the recovery of the four [Endangered Species Act] listed species and is an ecologically critical area.”

The judge was also critical of the defendants' lack of consideration of alternatives to their plans to release almost a million hatchery fish into the Sandy River. Haggerty noted that an alternative of releasing fewer fish into the watershed was dismissed entirely, as it was deemed that doing so would fail to present anglers with adequate fishing opportunities. Haggerty remarked, "Given the obvious difference between the release of approximately 1,000,000 smolts and zero smolts, it is not clear why it would not be meaningful to analyze a number somewhere in the middle or why such a number would preclude the provision of fishing opportunities."

Similar language is found throughout Haggerty's judgement, criticizing the defendants for repeatedly making assumptions and arbitrary decisions when constructing a fisheries management plan for the Sandy River.

Bill Bakke, Director of Science and Conservation for Native Fish Society said, “As a grass
roots advocacy organization, we see it as our responsibility to ensure that laws such as the
Endangered Species Act are followed. We have spent the 17 years of this organization’s
existence working with ODFW to restore wild fish runs to sustainable, harvestable levels in the
Sandy River. Instead, our efforts were met with plummeting fish populations while ODFW and
NMFS pumped out hatchery fish and papered over the problem. Someone had to step up and
say we are not going to allow you to push these fish into extinction.”