Anglers on the Sandy River can let out a sigh of relief.
A federal judge ruled Friday that hatchery fish can be released from the Sandy Hatchery this spring, despite an environmental group's legal fight to prevent it.
Judge Ancer Haggerty cleared the way for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to release coho, spring chinook and steelhead from the Sandy Hatchery with one change: ODFW must trim its planned release of coho from 300,000 smolts to 200,000 smolts.
Releases of all three will be far below historical levels on the Sandy, a popular Portland-area river that runs from the west side of Mount Hood to the Columbia River.
Recreational fishing advocates, who'd worried about the potential for the judge to halt hatchery releases and cut fish returns between 2015 and 2017 on the Sandy, lauded the judge's Friday ruling.
"This is good news for our industry," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "We are very happy that the anglers and businesses that rely on fishing on the Sandy River will not be negatively impacted by this ruling. This is great news for hatcheries in Oregon and for anyone who fishes in the Northwest."
The Native Fish Society and McKenzie Fly Fishers had successfully argued that too many hatchery fish were being allowed to interbreed with wild fish. Attention has focused on the Sandy Hatchery since two dams were removed on the river in 2007 and 2008.
While their removal opened new streams for spawning fish, they also eliminated the barrier where state officials separated wild and hatchery fish. Since then, the number of hatchery fish straying into wild fish habitat has skyrocketed.
While the judge had found that federal officials must do more to ensure hatchery fish planned for release don't harm wild fish on the Sandy River, it was unclear until Friday whether he would prohibit the release of hatchery fish altogether.
Michael Moody, executive director of the Native Fish Society, said he was disappointed the judge "didn't take more decisive action to prevent further declines in Sandy River salmon and steelhead."
ODFW spokeswoman Jessica Sall said her agency would continue implementing hatchery programs under federal approval to ensure endangered fish are conserved and that hatchery fish provide opportunities for recreational and commercial anglers.
"On-going monitoring and management will continue to inform us on the success of these programs and ODFW will adjust programs as information warrants, ensuring we meet our conservation and fishing objectives," Sall said.
The case is being followed by environmental groups and anglers not only on the Sandy, but throughout the West Coast. Similar lawsuits have been filed on other rivers in Oregon and in California.