For much of the early 1990s, the great conspiracy theorists along the upper Rogue River were convinced the state ran Cole Rivers Hatchery as its own personal salmon factory.

Spring chinook salmon were bred not to bite, they believed, and water flows were manipulated so the fish could scoot past Rogue anglers and into Cole Rivers, where they were summarily sold.

Even though the 1995 run alone accounted for the sale of 42,274 fish to fuel the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's statewide hatchery funds, it wasn't operated to fuel salmon sales. Now anglers and others who rely on the Rogue Basin's hatchery program have reason to believe that actually might become true if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hires a private contractor to operate the hatchery for the first time since it went online in 1974.

These hatchery fish are grown specifically to be caught and kept by anglers or commercial fleets as a way to make up for the wild salmon and steelhead habitat lost when the Corps built Lost Creek and Applegate dams.

But anglers and others fear turning the stewardship of nearly 2.8 million hatchery fish into a for-profit outfit could very well change for whom those fish are grown.

Who would be responsible if the hatchery returns dip or dive? Who would ensure that elaborate protocols created over 44 years of ODFW operation are followed? Would the public even be allowed access to the dike at the popular Hatchery Hole?

And fundamentally, who owns the adult fish that return to the facility?

"The fishing community and interest groups are asking the same questions," says Bruce McIntosh, ODFW's deputy fisheries chief. "They're looking at this and saying, 'holy crap.' "

There are many holy-crap moments for those reading a Corps' market survey revealed last week seeking public and private entities interested in running Cole Rivers on an annual contract basis.

In it, the Corps says it intends to ask for bids on a one-year contract, with two one-year renewals, to run the facility beginning July 1 when the Corps' agreement with ODFW expires.

Whoever gets that contract will be responsible for raising and releasing the same numbers of salmon, steelhead and trout ODFW has released under similar contracts, and later cooperative agreements, with the Corps.

Already two private firms — Anchor QEA, LLC of Wenatchee, Washington, and Prairie Springs Fish Farm near John Day — have responded to the market survey stating their interests. ODFW intends to do the same. Bids could be called for as early as the end of February.

If a private contractor out-bid ODFW and even did a bang-up job running Cole Rivers, ownership of the returning fish would be an issue with extreme consequences for anglers.

All salmon and steelhead released into the waters of the state are owned by the state, even if they are released by a private hatchery. But it remains unclear who would own the adults that return to a privatized Cole Rivers.

When a private hatchery in the 1980s fish-farmed salmon out of Coos Bay, those fish were owned by the public when in public waters, but were owned by the hatchery outfit once the fish reached its fish trap.

The implications of that distinction can be enormous.

In the past five years, ODFW has sold 15,884 excess chinook from Cole Rivers at an average price of $19.53, netting $310,164 in the process, hatchery records show.

During the same period, hatchery technicians recycled 15,805 spring chinook so anglers could get a second chance at them, records show. They also recycled 20,603 "retread" steelhead for anglers.

Satterthwaite warns that a for-profit outfit not only would have no incentive to recycle, they would have a financial disincentive to do so.

Excess steelhead cannot be sold, but spring chinook can. Those five years of recycled fish could have been sold for an extra $308,677.65.

That would be selling fish from right out of Oregonians' coolers, barbecues and smokers. The motives feared by the conspiracy theorists two decades ago would become reality.

McIntosh says his agency has asked the state Attorney General's Office to review just who would own those fish should the hatchery fall out of state-run status.

"That would be our conclusion, but we haven't gone through a legal review of it," McIntosh says. "This is like a lawyer's field day."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.