LEABURG, Ore. – Millions of fish have been saved at fish hatcheries in Oregon despite unprecedented wildfires and evacuations, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said Wednesday.
Six ODFW-managed facilities were affected, including two locally – Rock Creek and Leaburg.
No lives were lost, and officials said staff are returning to some facilities to help spawn spring Chinook during a critical time in their life cycle.
Some critical infrastructure has been destroyed and some fish were lost, with Rock Creek Hatchery on the North Umpqua River sustaining the most severe damage.
All buildings at Rock Creek except for the Rock Ed Education Center were destroyed or severely damaged by the Archie Creek Fire. This includes employee housing as well. Staff access has been limited due to a number of hazards around the site such as downed trees and power lines.
On Wednesday, staff were able to get to the facility and remove about 700 remaining adult spring Chinook and summer steelhead and move them to Cole Rivers Hatchery. They hope to collect enough eggs to meet their production goals.
Staff estimate 400,000 juvenile fish were lost. More accurate information is expected later this week.
The hatchery remains under Level 3 evacuation.
Leaburg Hatchery was also heavily impacted by the Holiday Farm Fire. Staff evacuated the hatchery and their homes at 2 a.m. on Sept. 8 and returned later in the morning to release 1.16 million fish into the McKenzie River.
ODFW said the Eugene Water & Electric Board had to open the dam rollgates as a precaution as debris from the fire could clog the dam. This caused the hatchery to lose water.
“Those fish would not have survived very long without new incoming fresh water,” said Erik Withalm, Leaburg hatchery manager. “We pulled tail screens to get fish out as quickly as we could before evacuating again as the fire approached. Fortunately, structures at the facility sustained only minor damage with only the wellhouse and a tractor burning.”
Most of the fish that were released – which includes yearling spring Chinook, summer steelhead and rainbow trout) are expected to survive after spending the next few months in the river. The Chinook and steelhead will head downstream to the ocean and some will return to the hatchery in two to four years. The trout will stay in the river.
Some fish meant for Rock Creek were not released and died on site. ODFW said hatcheries do not release “out of basin” stocks.
About 5 to 10 percent of fish did not survive.
As Leaburg Lake levels rise, hatchery staff are returning to the site to collect spring Chinook adults in the trap and transfer eggs to the McKenzie Hatchery. Dead fish are being removed.
The hatchery’s popular sturgeon survived, but may eventually be released into the McKenzie River due to concerns of ongoing water supply issues.
“We are still very much in the emergency response phase. The safety and security of our staff is priority one, and we have dozens of staff who have been impacted by the evacuations from their homes,” ODFW Deputy Director Shannon Hurn said. “As the state sees more stability and abatement of active fires, we will determine over the next week or two the extent of the fish loss and damage. Then, it will be time for long-term planning for repairing, replacing and funding the recovery of our infrastructure. We will also need to plan as best we can for expected mudslides or debris flows that will occur with the fall rains on burned areas, which will further complicate hatchery management.”
Staff are working to develop contingency plans for production and stocking in 2021 and into the future.
“On behalf of the Department I would like to say thank you to all the firefighters and those volunteer on the front lines. We are very aware that the damage at several of our hatcheries would have been much more extensive without them,” continued Hurn. “Also, I’d like to say thank you to Oregon’s law enforcement, cities, counties and other community services for the relief they are providing. It is heartening to see these small forested communities rally together in the face of such devastation.”