CCA Oregon's Position Statement on the Willamette Basin Fisheries

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Introduction:  The Oregon Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association (Oregon CCA) was established in 2007 and has been involved in issues directly related to Willamette River salmon and steelhead since that time.  Recent events have generated increased interest in Oregon CCA's position and activities related to the Willamette River basin. 

It is important to note that CCA Oregon is not party to any coalition nor is it sponsoring a campaign related to the Willamette.  Its “business as usual” and for over ten-years CCA Oregon has been, and continues to be, engaged in meaningful activities at local, state and national levels to help protect endangered salmon and steelhead populations, and enhance consumptive fisheries on the Willamette and its major tributaries. 

As a grassroots organization CCA Oregon's membership establishes its advocacy priorities in line with adopted positions.  Paid professional staff provide experience, expertise, knowledge and recommendations, but the majority of CCA Oregon's advocacy is accomplished by dedicated, hardworking non-paid volunteers.                                                                                                                   

Purpose:  This statement was prepared to provide an abbreviated outline of the history and development of the Willamette Basin as it affects salmon and steelhead stocks to improve knowledge and understanding by CCA Oregon's members, and others; to highlight CCA Oregon's activities and achievements in this regard, and; to outline CCA Oregon's future areas of emphasis relating to the Willamette Basin.

Background:  The Willamette River system and its fisheries are extremely complex. For over a century the Willamette and its tributaries have been manipulated by more than 20 major dams as well as a complex series of levees, dikes, and channels to control the river's flow. The dams on the Willamette's major tributaries are primarily large flood-control, water storage, and power-generating dams.

Often referred to as the “Willamette Valley Flood Control Project” (Willamette Project) thirteen of these dams were built from the 1940s through the 1960s to be operated by the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), and eight of those produce hydro power.  The flood-control dams operated by the ACOE are estimated to hold up to 27 percent of the Willamette's annual runoff.

Most of the Willamette Project dams are “high-head” dams over 250 feet tall that block access to roughly half of the historic salmon and steelhead habitat and spawning grounds on the Willamette's major tributaries. As partial mitigation for the dams, the ACOE built five hatcheries and associated facilities, which have supported vital consumptive fisheries from Eugene to Astoria.  However, the hatcheries have also reduced the genetic diversity of fish stocks in the Willamette basin.

For more than 60 years the ACOE has been providing these mitigation hatchery fish resulting in critical sportfishing opportunities in the Willamette and its major tributaries, along with the lower Columbia River.  In recent years however, the ACOE has failed to fully fund the mitigation hatcheries which has required political pressure to help ensure compliance and supplemental funding from the state of Oregon.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed by the US Congress in 1973.  Since then upper Willamette chinook and upper Willamette steelhead have been listed on the ESA as threatened.  As a result the ACOE (along with the Bonneville Power Agency and Bureau of Reclamation) were required to evaluate conditions and develop and implement plans to protect and rebuild these imperiled stocks. 

In response the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a Biological Opinion (BiOp) in July, 2008.  The objectives of the BiOp were to determine the effect of the Willamette Project dams and if their continued operation would affect the existence of ESA listed species.  The BiOp concluded that more needed to be done to protect Upper Willamette chinook and steelhead.  According to the BiOp not implementing the NMFS changes would result in destroying or adversely modifying their critical habitat.

The required changes include establishing fish passage (downstream) at three dams (Cougar, Detroit and Lookout Pass), temperature control downstream of another dam (Detroit), changes in downstream flows, screening of irrigation diversions, improved hatchery practices and facilities and habitat improvement.  NMFS concluded that with these changes the Willamette Project could continue to operate without threatening the continued existence of the two Upper Willamette salmonid species or destroying their critical habitat.

CCA Oregon's activities related to the Willamette Basin: This summary is intended to highlight CCA Oregon's activities related to the Willamette Basin and should not be considered comprehensive.

Applicable position statements:

  • “CCA Oregon supports harvest plans focused on conserving and protecting northwest wild salmon and steelhead stocks and opposes harvest plans that do not adequately protect ESA-listed salmon and steelhead.”
  • "CCA Oregon supports the important role hatcheries have to play in providing harvest opportunities while conserving, sustaining, and rebuilding salmon and steelhead stocks. We also support efforts to improve the efficacy of hatchery programs to ensure that, consistent with native fish conservation, opportunities are not unnecessarily constrained."
  • “CCA Oregon supports science-based efforts to decrease the impacts of predation on adult and juvenile fish populations including salmon, steelhead and sturgeon. Many predator populations have reached artificial and unnatural levels due to human actions and conflicting laws.”
  • “CCA Oregon strongly opposes the use of non-selective harvest methods.”  

Providing a healthy consumptive fishery while protecting and enhancing ESA listed stocks can be a delicate balance.  Both are equally important to CCA Oregon members and the angling public. It is with these directives in mind the following activities have been undertaken and achievements accomplished:

  • Successfully applied for funds from ODF&W’s R&E board to fund the Molalla/Trout Creek Acclimation Pond to acclimate 100,000 Spring Chinook a year.  This provides an improved consumptive fishery.  Molalla Spring Chinook were extirpated in 2001-2010. This will provide a reintroduction effort of a self sustaining population.
  • Played a pivotal role in the passage of the Columbia River Reforms in both Oregon and Washington that included an end to gillnetting below the Willamette River since 2015.
  • Worked with ODF&W to increase production in Willamette hatcheries so enhanced planting in the terminal fisheries would not reduce the level of hatchery Spring Chinook planted in the upper Willamette.  Currently the only river receiving a lower number of plants is the McKenzie due to a lawsuit and the ACOE’s refusal to fully plant within the current law.
  • Met with the ACOE at the Leaburg Hatchery to emphasize their responsibility to bring the stocking level of Spring Chinook back up to the legal level on the McKenzie following the lawsuits by anti-hatchery groups.
  • Lobbied for, and secured, $10 million in ODF&W's budget to fund deferred hatchery maintenance.
  • Negotiated an agreement with ODF&W to increase the number of Spring Chinook currently being planted by 170,000 smolts by helping to secure funding for ODFW’s operation of the Leaburg hatchery.  The agreement also provides expanded salmon production capacity.  Anti-hatchery groups opposed the agreement.
  • Secured letter of support from Oregon Congressional delegation supporting full funding of mitigation hatcheries by the ACOE.
  • Supported, through member's letters and direct lobbying, ODF&W gaining “Section 120 authority” through NOAA, working within the MMPA, for problem sealion removal authority at the Oregon City Falls.
  • Actively involved at the state and federal level, working with congressional leaders, the Columbia River Treaty Tribes, ODF&W, WDFW and other “fish groups” to pass legislation authorizing the removal of problem sealions in the Columbia and its tributaries.  In December, 2018, S3119, the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act was enacted into law allowing take of sea lions from the Columbia River (above river mile 112) and its tributaries.

As of this writing the condition of Upper Willamette chinook and steelhead runs remain in peril, mitigation hatchery production is being curtailed and most of the required actions contained in the BiOp are far from complete.  The ACOE is failing to meet its obligation to Oregon and its citizens to protect our resources, provide viable consumptive downstream fisheries and repair damaged habitat.  In fact, the ACOE has yet to start meaningful work to meet many of the requirements contained in the BiOp.

Adding to the challenge, a lawsuit has been filed against the ACOE by “anti hatchery groups” to halt the planting of summer steelhead in the North Santiam River.  CCA Oregon is working with state and federal legislators to get that important program reinstated.  If current attempts are not successful CCA Oregon will work with ODF&W and state legislators to find continuing funding for that program.  CCA Oregon will also continue its work to secure permanent funding for the Leaburg Hatchery to be operated by ODF&W.

CCA Oregon remains steadfast in protecting consumptive fisheries while providing for wild fish recovery.  It is imperative that the requirements contained in the BiOp be fully implemented in a timely manner.  This includes constructing sorting facilities that have been shown to effectively segregate hatchery reared fish while providing wild fish access to critical habitat without competition.

Summary:  CCA Oregon has had meaningful positive influence on issues impacting the Willamette Basin and remains committed to continuing its work with Oregon legislators and agencies to ensure the ACOE meets its obligations to protect ESA listed upper Willamette salmon and steelhead while providing robust recreational fisheries. CCA Oregon supports current efforts to develop passage and establishment of new “wild” fish surrogates as an effort to increase fitness and bio-diversity of naturally spawning salmon where none currently exist.  CCA Oregon does not support any action that would reduce mitigation, or other hatchery augmentation, in the Willamette River system until such time as it is demonstrated that natural in-basin production can sustain robust consumptive fisheries.