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Know the West

Pump failure pummels salmon


A southern Oregon hatchery's salmon stock was devastated when a pump failure killed nearly 1.4 million baby chinook. But no one is pointing fingers.

When the Army Corps of Engineers shut off power to do some routine maintenance at the Cole M. Rivers Hatchery on the Rogue River, it was business as usual. "They do it all the time and nothing ever happens," says Matt Frank, assistant manager at the hatchery. Once power was restored, the hatchery alarm was tested and workers assumed that all levels of the system were fine.

Now, hatchery officials wish they had done a more thorough alarm test.

During the night, alarms failed to ring in workers' houses to warn them that a pump had failed and fish were suffocating. By the time a janitor heard the alarm in the early morning hours, 76 percent of the spring salmon hatch had died.

"I don't know how to express how awful it was," says Frank. "But it was our worst nightmare come true." Workers spent the next several days sorting through hundreds of trays of dead fish, looking for survivors.

Mike Evenson of Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife says that salmon runs in 2003 could be cut in half, since only about 5 percent of migrating fish survive and return to spawn four years later. Officials say this could take a heavy toll on the Rogue River's sport fishing, a business that pumps millions of dollars into local economies.

But Rusty Randall, a fly shop owner in Merlin, Ore., isn't worried. He says that folks have weathered a lot of bad years in the fishing business and this is just one more variable to deal with. "People have to remember that it's called fishing and not catching," says Randall.

Hatchery officials are working to ensure that there are plenty of fish to catch in four years. They will raise the remaining fish to a larger-than-usual size before releasing them next August. Frank says officials also are looking into stocking more fish over the next three years. The hatchery can't make up the lost numbers, he says, but it is shooting for the highest rate of survival for what's left.