TRAIL -- Technician Jeff Seeger spent most of Christmas Day inside the Cole Rivers Hatchery hatch house with no time to do anything but collect the dead.
Hundreds of thousands of infant Rogue River spring chinook salmon fry swam in circles inside large water troughs waiting for their yolk sacks to dissolve so they could be placed in the hatchery’s outside ponds where they’ll grow until their release into the Rogue next summer and fall.
But one by one, little fry floated to the top, deformed from exposure to algae, fungus and lack of dissolved oxygen in the hatch house’s fractured water supply. Seeger skimmed the dead fish off the surface and into an aluminum bucket for disposal as mortalities, or "morts" in hatchery lingo.
By Christmas Day's end, Seeger and other technicians had skimmed 26,706 dead spring chinook, adding to the list of nearly 1 million and counting of dead fish from the 2.33 million spring chinook eggs spawned in October, threatening Rogue fishing successes three and four years from now.
"From 7:30 in the morning until 2:45 in the afternoon, I did nothing but picking morts," Seeger says. "It's sad. These are our babies. They're why we're here."
The hatch house’s 45-year-old water system was plagued from the get-go and has been jerry-rigged over the years with various filters. Now, it is again failing and in need of replacement or it threatens to cripple the facility’s ability to meet fish-release requirements in the Rogue Basin.
The fry’s water was robbed of oxygen and clogged with a brown algae called diatoms. And even rust from aged pipes flooded into the hatchery’s egg-tray stacks Dec. 7, eventually killing about 460,000 of the infant salmon that first week as hatchery technicians scrambled to clean the fish and disinfect the equipment.
“It literally happened overnight,” hatchery Manager David Pease says. “That water should be so clean you could drink it. You get this nasty, rusty, stinky water. I don’t know how to describe it other than it’s not healthy for fish.”
But the damage was done, and young fish damaged by the fungus continue to die.
“We’re losing between 20,000 and 25,000 a day, but the numbers are dropping,” Pease says.
“It sucks coming to work,” says Pease, who postponed a holiday vacation. “The only reason I’m here is because we have sick fish. It hurts.”
For years the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which operates the hatchery, has sought funding for a new hatch house water system from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the hatchery and contracts with ODFW to grow the salmon and steelhead released in the Rogue Basin.
Corps spokesman Jeff Henon says his agency is working with ODFW in investigating the cause of the die-off.
“We don’t know if it’s an infrastructure issue,” Henon says.
The Corps did not act on an ODFW request for $500,000 in rebuilds to the water system in 2016. Prior to the ongoing die-off, the Corps had a line item in its 2019 budget request for a rebuilt system, but no money request was attached to it.
The agency has now asked Congress for money to rebuild the system, Henon says, but the Corps does not reveal line-item financial requests until the agency’s budget is enacted.
Scott Patterson, ODFW’s fish-propagation manager, says his agency has asked the Corps to fix the building water issue for the better part of the past decade.
“I don’t know if the Corps is opposed to it, they just really don’t want to pay for it, which is not new for the Corps,” Patterson says.
A short-term fix, at the cost of about $100,000, would be to clean the pipes and disinfect the entire hatch house this spring, Patterson says.
“Hopefully that will provide us some relief, but it won’t solve the issue,” Patterson says. “It’s not a long-term fix.”
In the long term, the entire system needs to be replaced at a cost of somewhere north of the previous $500,000 estimate, Patterson says.
“We can’t put another Band-Aid on another Band-Aid,” Patterson says. “We need to step back and redesign that whole water-delivery system to the hatch building.”
The Corps constructed the hatchery as mitigation for the lost spawning habitat of wild salmon and steelhead blocked by the building of Lost Creek dam in 1977 and Applegate Dam in 1980.
The Rogue’s wild spring chinook were the biggest losers from the placement and operation of Lost Creek dam, renamed William Jess L. Dam and Intake Structure in 1996. It blocks about one-third of the historic spawning habitat for wild spring chinook, and the 1.7 million spring chinook smolts released annually from Cole Rivers are intended to make up for wild fish losses.
“We will do everything within our authority to meet our legal obligation for fish mitigation,” Henon said.
“We know the facility needs upgrades, and we’ve requested the funds,” Henon says. “But if we don’t get the funding, there’s not a lot we can do to the facility.”
The surviving spring chinook fry were moved Thursday from the hatch house troughs to outside hatchery ponds, hatchery Foreman Jim Grieve says. However, more of them are expected to die over the next few weeks, Grieve says.
That put the loss as of Thursday at about 930,000 fry and counting, hatchery records show. That whittles down the current spring chinook fry count to just under 1.4 million chinook, or 300,000 shy of planned releases from this year’s spawn, records show.
This year’s chinook are set for release in August and October 2019 and March 2020.
Pease says the exact number of surviving spring chinook won’t be known until they have their adipose fins clipped in March. Those clipped fins identify them to anglers as Rogue hatchery fish they can keep during the spring chinook sport-fishing season, during which wild spring chinook must be released unharmed.
This year’s fry are expected to return to the Rogue in 2022.
While the spring chinook are now out of the hatch house, Rogue coho salmon eggs are currently in incubation trays there. Summer and winter steelhead eggs will follow.
Patterson says the agency is considering several alternatives that include incubating steelhead eggs at other state-run hatcheries until the problem is fixed.
“This has been chronic for a long, long time,” Patterson says. “Everybody loses.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.