One of Oregon's top fish managers says he's confident the state will not get squeezed out of managing Cole Rivers Hatchery but acknowledges "uncertainty" whether a private contractor could end up running the Rogue River Basin's hatchery program.
Bruce McIntosh, deputy fisheries chief for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said his agency will offer a bid to continue running the 43-year-old hatchery on the upper Rogue when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers solicits one-year bids, which is expected to occur in a matter of weeks.
Three private companies have expressed interest by answering a Corps' market survey that detailed the agency's intent to take bids on producing the nearly 2.8 million salmon, steelhead and trout released annually in the Rogue and Applegate rivers.
The Corps is required to release the fish as mitigation for wild salmon and steelhead habitat lost from the building of Lost Creek and Applegate dams.
"We're confident we'll get this opportunity," McIntosh said. "We'll be extremely competitive. We're going to be tough to compete with, given our experience. But there's uncertainty around it, for sure. It's new to all of us."
Corps spokeswoman Michelle Helms confirmed the three private companies expressing interest in the Cole Rivers contract are Air Fresh Seafoods of Gig Harbor, Washington; Anchor QEA LLC of Wenatchee, Washington; and Prairie Springs Fish Farm near John Day.
"They've expressed interest, but we don't know if these folks will offer a bid or not," Helms said. "Even people who have not indicated interest may or may not bid."
The Corps originally hired ODFW via contracts to operate Cole Rivers, but in 1990 it switched to a cooperative agreement. The most recent five-year agreement expires June 30.
The Corps has stated its intention to offer a one-year contract, with options for two one-year renewals, for operation of Cole Rivers. The bid was expected to be awarded in mid-April, with a transition time until July 1 should a private firm win it.
The Corps last month opted to switch to contractual agreements for Cole Rivers and its other six mitigation hatcheries in Oregon, including Bonneville Hatchery on the Columbia River, after a review of its rules showed it would be more appropriate.
The proposed switch has shocked ODFW and angling interests, who worry that operation by a private firm could be inferior, leading to losses of angling opportunities. The Corps also has discussed scaling back its trout mitigation programs in the Willamette and McKenzie river basins, but McIntosh said there has been no talk of curbing Rogue Basin mitigation.
Also in limbo is a legal opinion about who would own excess adult salmon, particularly highly prized Rogue spring chinook salmon, once they enter the hatchery. If the contractor owned them, the fish could be sold instead of recycled for anglers.
McIntosh said his agency has not received any inquiries for documentation of workings and budget breakdowns for Cole Rivers, which has a budget of almost $2 million, for which the Corps pays about 80 percent. The remaining money is paid by ODFW and funds the rearing of about 500,000 state-owned salmon for release in the Coquille and Coos basins.
Because the time frame to craft a bid is tight, McIntosh said it would be difficult for an outside firm to dig deep into the weeds of Cole Rivers operations to put together a solid bid.
"But this is America," McIntosh said. "If we're anything, we're entrepreneurial. I've got my fingers crossed."