Court Asked To Stop Elwha Hatchery Releases

WILD FISH CONSERVANCY PO Box 402 Duvall, WA 98019 · Tel 425-788-1167 · Fax 425-788-9634 · [email protected]
Contact: Kurt Beardslee, Wild Fish Conservancy, 425-788-1167 Brian Knutsen, Smith and Lowney, PLLC, 971-373-8692
For Immediate Release: Monday, January 27, 2014

Four conservation groups have asked the US District Court for Western Washington to halt planned releases of hatchery coho salmon and steelhead into the Elwha River and planned collection of returning adult steelhead for hatchery broodstock until the Court has an opportunity to determine whether the releases comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In February 2012, Wild Fish Conservancy, The Conservation Angler, the Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee, and the Wild Steelhead Coalition (Plaintiffs) filed suit against the Olympic National Park, NOAA Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and hatchery managers for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. The suit alleged that the agencies and Tribal officials (in their official capacities) were violating the ESA and ignoring the best available science by funding and operating fish hatchery programs in the Elwha River. In July of 2012 the Elwha Defendants submitted Hatchery Genetic Management Plans (HGMPs) for the steelhead and coho hatchery programs to NOAA Fisheries, approval of which would provide ESA take coverage, subject to compliance with Terms and Conditions, as specified in associated Incidental Take Statements (ITS). In November 2012, NOAA Fisheries issued hastily-prepared approval documents, noting that the hatchery programs did cause take of listed Puget Sound steelhead, Chinook salmon, and bull trout, and identifying Terms and Conditions that the programs must comply with in order to be exempt from ESA take prohibitions. The District Court then dismissed the claim against the Tribal hatchery managers, finding that NOAA Fisheries’ approval of the HGMPs rendered that claim moot. Plaintiffs then amended their claims to challenge NOAA Fisheries’ November 2012 approval documents, alleging that they violate the ESA and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Federal Defendants and Plaintiffs briefing on those issues before the District Court was completed in August, 2013 and the matter remains pending before the Court.
The motion for a preliminary injunction asks the Court to stop planned releases of hatchery coho salmon and steelhead and stop the planned taking of threatened adult steelhead for use as hatchery broodstock. These planned hatchery activities threatened harm both to individual listed steelhead, Chinook and bull trout in the Elwha River and to the listed Puget Sound populations of which they are members. These activities and the hatchery programs they are part of lack the necessary ESA take coverage because NOAA Fisheries’ approval documents are unlawful and because the Elwha Defendants cannot comply with the terms and conditions of those approval documents.
Moreover, Plaintiffs argue, the hatchery programs threaten the recovery of native steelhead, salmon, and bull trout, and are not necessary to safeguard native steelhead and salmon from periodic high sediment levels associated with the removal of the two dams on the Elwha. Any legitimate short-term conservation concern associated with the high sediment levels can be satisfied by releasing a much smaller number of juvenile (50,000 or less) than planned (175,000 steelhead and 425,000 coho), and does not require any collection of returning adult steelhead for hatchery broodstock because the
associated captive broodstock program provides more than enough adults to provide for adequate
juvenile production through 2017.
“The science is clear: hatchery fish are detrimental to wild fish recovery,” said Kurt Beardslee,
executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy. "These hatchery programs need to use best science and
comply with the law. After all, the world is literally watching this restoration project unfold. We need
to let the Elwha River heal itself and not ‘jumpstart’ it with nearly half a million maladapted hatchery
fish per year.”
The federal government is spending nearly $325 million for the removal of the Elwha and Glines
Canyon dams, which will open nearly seventy miles of pristine riverine habitat in Olympic National
Park, much of which is designated a wilderness area. Instead of natural colonization by wild
salmonids, however, the agencies and the Tribal officials are going ahead with a plan that will
eventually allow the release of more than seven million juvenile hatchery salmonids annually.
Expenditures for hatchery facilities and operations have contributed to inadequate funding for the
research and monitoring activities that are necessary to evaluate whether restoration is succeeding and
whether hatchery activities are harming restoration and resulting in take of listed fish.
The four conservation groups agree with a recent review by the Hatchery Scientific Review Group
(HSRG) that restoration of the lower Elwha River and re-colonization of the pristine upper Elwha
River should prioritize recovery of wild fish. The proposed reliance on large-scale hatchery releases
undermines ecosystem recovery and violates the ESA, and threatens recovery of bull trout and Puget
Sound Chinook salmon and steelhead, all listed as threatened species under the ESA. While the groups
support the right of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to harvest salmon and steelhead, spending $325
million to open a wilderness watershed but then stocking it with hatchery fish is poor public policy and
will likely lead to skepticism over future salmon recovery efforts, especially dam removal projects.
The groups are represented by Smith and Lowney, PLLC, of Seattle.