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Corps to assess ailing Rogue River hatchery

Steelhead collection didn’t quite go as planned Tuesday morning at Cole Rivers Hatchery along the upper Rogue River.

First, the crowder that herds steelhead inside from the collection pond for sorting by technicians was frozen in place. After a short electrical glitch, the crowder finally pushed the steelhead into a coffin-like metal basket that creaked so loudly as it dropped fish onto a sorting bench that two technicians had to yell into each others' ears to be heard.

The aches and pains at this 46-year-old facility are adding up, and this week it gets a full physical to see what works and what doesn't at a hatchery responsible for most of the salmon and steelhead that Rogue anglers keep annually.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is sending a team down from Portland this week to conduct a full evaluation of the hatchery’s overall condition and flesh out potential upgrades that officials say could easily run millions of dollars.

“The assessment is for the entire hatchery, and they want to talk to the people on the ground to see what’s working all right and what’s not,” hatchery Manager David Pease said.

While the inspection will include collection facilities, electrical and the state of outside fish-rearing ponds and water infrastructure, hatchery workers have their own top priority — “That’s the hatch house, its life-support system and how it’s failing,” Pease said.

The impetus of this week’s evaluation is a December fungal outbreak in the facility’s hatch house blamed for killing more than 1 million spring chinook eggs and fry, leaving the hatchery with about 1.2 million infant spring chinook — about 500,000 shy of its annual release requirements.

The Corps owns the facility to raise and release hatchery fish to make up for the loss of wild salmon and steelhead spawning habitat blocked by Lost Creek and Applegate dams, the Corps’ two Rogue Basin facilities.

The federal agency contracts with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to operate the facility.

The hatch house has been a regular problem at Cole Rivers, because the incubating eggs need a constant flow of clean water to survive. Over the years the Corps has cobbled together a series of filters to combat water-borne diseases and other causes of mortality.

In 2016, the Corps did not act on an ODFW request for $500,000 to rebuild the hatch-house water system. The Corps’ current budget request includes money for the water system, but the Corps has not indicated what type of project it has in mind.

Corps officials did not return telephone calls Tuesday afternoon seeking comment.

Hatchery returns are key to Rogue angling success because they account for the bulk of the fish anglers keep.

Another issue the Corps team may visit is the fish-collection facility at the base of Applegate Dam.

The facility for trapping and transferring hatchery winter steelhead to a truck for hauling to Cole Rivers for spawning has failed at least four times since 2002 — in each case it was a breakdown in an elevator-like system that transfers fish from the trap to the truck. The worst incident occurred in 2015, when a breakdown killed nearly 400 winter steelhead adults.

“It’s not very fish-friendly,” Pease said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTwriterFreeman.

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