Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Humboldt facility airs coho concerns for Rowdy Creek

Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery and two other state-operated North Coast hatcheries could face lawsuits from an Arcata-based environmental organization if changes aren't made to their management plans.

Last November and December, Rowdy Creek, Mad River and Trinity River fish hatcheries received notices of intent to sue from the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), a Humboldt nonprofit organization, due to potential effects that EPIC said hatchery-released fish could have on the region's wild coho salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The required 60-day period has passed since the management of Rowdy Creek (privately operated) and Mad River (operated by California Department of Fish and Wildlife) received notice letters on Nov. 30, meaning that EPIC now has the ability to sue under the Endangered Species Act.

"We're interested in speaking to all the people involved in running these operations in order to come to a solution rather than to have it drag out in courts," said Andrew Orahoske, EPIC's conservation director, in a telephone interview. As of Monday, EPIC had not heard from representatives of any of the three hatcheries, Orahoske said.

Rowdy Creek representatives could not be reached for comment Monday.

The notice letters state that hatchery-raised chinook salmon and steelhead trout prey on wild juvenile coho, transmit diseases and compete for food and habitat - examples of "incidental take," according to the EPIC.

Take, under the Endangered Species Act, means any attempt to"harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect" a listed species. Additionally, hatchery-raised coho salmon from Trinity River hatchery could potentially harm wild coho by interbreeding, the letter states.

The Trinity River and Mad River hatcheries are also accused of "direct take" due to the practice of collecting fish for breeding. Rowdy Creek also collects fish for breeding, but "direct take" is not listed in its letter.

The notice letters state that these examples of take must be incorporated and federally approved in each entity's Hatchery and Genetic Management Plans (HGMP) in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

That approval would have to come from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The California Hatchery Review Report, a comprehensive analysis of the state's hatcheries released in June 2012, says thatthe primary goal of the HGMPs is to devise science-based hatchery management practices that "ensure the conservation and recovery of listed (species)" under the Endangered Species Act.

"Our recommendations are from the California Hatchery Review project and others. It's not new information that those hatcheries haven't been aware of," Orahoske said. "What has changed is that we've taken a step to formally require the agencies involved to comply."

Mike Taugher, communications director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that Hatchery Genetic Management Plans for the three hatcheries have not been modified in response to EPIC's notice letters.

The nonprofit Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery started operations in 1972 with funding from cash donations, local farmers and Simonsen Lumber Company's owner, Leland Simonsen. It is the only private hatchery in the state, and it raises and releases more than 100,000 juvenile chinook salmon per year and roughly 50,000 juvenile steelhead.

Rowdy Creek is funded by donations and fundraisers, and also receives funding from Fish and Wildlife.

The Mad River Hatchery releases more than 150,000 hatchery raised juvenile steelhead annually, is funded by Fish and Wildlife, and is operated by the department and volunteers from Friends of the Mad River Hatchery.

The Rowdy Creek and Mad River hatcheries pale in comparison with the Trinity River Hatchery, which annually releases 4.3 million juvenile and yearling Chinook salmon, 500,000 yearling coho salmon, and 800,000 yearling steelhead. The Trinity River Hatchery is funded by the Department of Reclamation and is operated by Fish and Wildlife.

Fish hatcheries are a much more commonly used management practice by state resource agencies in Oregon and Washington.

Some North Coast fishing guides lament that California does not embrace hatcheries more like Oregon, since hatchery fish can always be brought home for dinner when most wild salmon and steelhead fish have strict limits on harvest. On the Smith River, hatchery steelhead are allowed to go under the filet knife while all wild steelhead must be released.

Local fisheries biologist Zack Larson serves as the coordinator of the Smith River Advisory Council, a group of stakeholders that routinely meets to discuss Smith River issues. He preferred not to weigh in on the EPIC action, but he noted that in recent years the advisory council was able to get Rowdy Creek hatchery to voluntarily mark (by fin clip) all fish released from the facility, even before it was required by Fish and Wildlife.

He also pointed out the benefit of hatchery- and dam-collected data for determining historic populations statewide. Rowdy Creek hatchery has the longest running data set on the Smith River, and Larson said the information has proved invaluable for his current efforts to document Smith River fish populations with a sonar fish counter.

"We use their data to look at annual run timings and it lines up with our data exactly," Larson said.

Orahoske stated that just because EPIC now has the ability to sue, "that doesn't mean we want to shut anything down immediately. Our door is open is the message, and we definitely would like to discuss this further to avoid litigation."

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