- Associated Press - Friday, March 14, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - A judge has ordered federal fish managers in Oregon to release fewer young salmon into the Sandy River this year to ensure that hatchery fish don’t harm wild fish - but has left other hatchery operations intact.

Federal Judge Ancer Haggerty ordered Friday that the National Marine Fisheries Service allow releases of no more than 200,000 coho smolts into the Sandy this year - 100,000 fewer than planned.

But the judge did not order a complete temporary shutdown of hatchery releases as requested in the lawsuit filed by two Oregon nonprofit groups, nor did he require an environmental review of the hatchery. He also did not further reduce releases of fish other than the coho from the hatchery.

“It’s less than what we sought, but it’s still … protective of wild fish, though it doesn’t go as far as we think it should,” said Dave Becker, the attorney who represented the Oregon City-based Native Fish Society in the lawsuit.

The suit claimed hatchery fish are straying in too-large numbers into wild fish habitat, interbreeding with wild fish and harming the wild populations. Numerous studies have shown that artificially bred fish are weaker and harm wild ones.

According to the lawsuit, mitigation measures at the hatchery such as weirs and other structures did not sufficiently prevent interbreeding and negative effects among hatchery and wild fish.

In January, the judge ruled that parts of the hatchery operation were unlawful, violating the Endangered Species Act, and hatchery managers needed to make improvements.

In his order Friday, the judge wrote that the agency’s chief error was a “failure to explain” why the weirs and other structures would lead to dramatic decreases to the rate of hatchery fish straying into wild fish territory. The agency’s predictions, according to the judge, “largely proved correct”: the decreases in stray rates were actually achieved.

The exception was the hatchery coho, which continued to stray in large number into wild coho habitat, the judge said.

State and federal officials said the ruling was a victory for their operation.

“The court largely agreed with our decisions. The hatchery program continues to operate with only one exception,” said Rob Jones with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, which approves Oregon’s hatchery operation plans.

Jones said the judge did not order any reductions in releases of other Sandy Hatchery programs - spring Chinook, winter steelhead and summer steelhead - which were also targeted by the lawsuit.

But Becker, the plaintiff’s attorney, said the lawsuit did indirectly lead to reductions in spring Chinook releases. That’s because, he said, prior to the suit the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife - the agency that runs the hatchery - planned to release 300,000 spring Chinook into the river. But in court, the agency indicated it would only release 132,000 spring Chinook.

“If there had not been a lawsuit, ODFW would be releasing the 300,000 spring Chinook,” Becker said.

ODFW has submitted new plans for the hatchery, which federal officials are currently reviewing.

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