The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has signed a legally-binding agreement to hold off planting any non-native Chambers Creek hatchery fish in the Elwha River in 2012.
The tribe was on a course to plant the non-native steelhead in the Elwha as soon as April.
The agreement applies to the Elwha and its tributaries, and was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. The interim agreement, signed with the Wild Fish Conservancy, The Conservation Angler, the Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee and the Wild Steelhead Coalition, grew out of a lawsuit filed by the four groups Feb. 9.
On the right: Hatchery-raised coho feed at the Elwha tribal fish hatchery near Port Angeles. The tribe has agreed to hold off on planting any non-native Chambers Creek steelhead from its hatchery in the Elwha River this year. Photo by Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times
The groups filed suit against federal agencies and officials at the tribe seeking to block releases of the fish into the Elwha, claiming the releases would violate the federal Endangered Species Act by harming wild steelhead, a threatened species.
The agreement, approved and signed by U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle, does not address the substance of that suit or the claims or assertions on the hatchery issue made by either side. The agreement also doesn’t speak to potential releases of non-native steelhead in the river in the future.
In return for the tribe’s commitment, the plaintiffs agreed to hold off on seeking a preliminary injunction in the suit in 2012.
Kurt Beardslee of the Wild Fish Conservancy said he was grateful for the agreement, which he said he hopes buys time for further negotiation of the fish restoration plan for the river.
State and federal bioloigsts at the National Park Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, and the tribe’s habitat biologist have advised the tribe against planting Chambers Creek steelhead in the Elwha River.
The tribe has planted Chambers Creek fish, native to south Puget Sound, in the Elwha since 1977 to provide an opportunity for tribal fisherman in the Elwha, where two dams built on the river without fish passage destroyed the river’s once legendary runs. It was the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife that first planted the fish in the river in 1957, for sport fishing.
The tribe had intended to keep on planting greatly reduced numbers of Chambers Creek steelhead, reared at its new $16 million hatchery, built for the tribe as part of the Elwha restoration project. Dam removal began last September and the $325 million project is expected to take up to three years.
But now that the Elwha dams are coming out, scientists warn the non-native fish will be able to colonize the upper river, posing undue risk to native resident fish in the Elwha, as well as wild native steelhead in the Elwha the dam removal program is intended to recover.
Extensive studies of hatchery fish in other basins have found that they increase risk of loss of fitness in native steelhead by interbreeding with wild fish. They also can compete with natural fish for food, territory, spawning sites and access to mates, risk the introduction of disease, and add another layer of uncertainty to the recovery equation.
“In our opinion, as Northwest Fisheries Science Center scientists, Chambers Creek Hatchery steelhead have no role in the recovery of native Puget Sound Steelhead,” scientists George Pess, Jm Myers, and Jeff Hard wrote the tribe in a white paper dated April 14, 2010. “While the current Chambers Creek fish do provide harvest opportunity in the lower Elwha River, this harvest benefit cannot compensate for the potential risks to recovery.”
The tribe initiated a moratorium on fishing in the Elwha for five years once the dams are out. The Chambers Creek stock are at the moment the fish the tribe is looking to for a harvest after the moratorium, because other runs in the Elwha are so depleted.
The tribe reserved its right to fish in the Elwha River and its usual and accustomed areas outside the reservation in perpetuity under its Treaty of Point No Point, signed in 1855. Destruction of the river began not long thereafter, with the construction by a private developer of Elwha Dam without fish passage — in violation of state law — beginning in 1910.
The tribe opposed the dams from the outset, and tribal leaders were the first to seek to take the dams out in relicensing procedures in 1986.
To learn more about the restoration of the Elwha and the hatchery issue, see the Seattle Times Special Report.