Plans by state Fish and Wildlife to release early winter hatchery steelhead into local rivers this spring could be put on hold due to a lawsuit filed last week by the Wild Fish Conservancy.
Phil Anderson, the state Fish and Wildlife director said in a news release, they made the “very difficult” decision last week under the threat of litigation by the Wild Fish Conservancy, a non-profit group based in Duvall.
In late January, the group filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue state Fish and Wildlife over its management of the (Chambers Creek) early winter steelhead hatchery programs.
On March 31, as the 60-day period wrapped up, the group filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Seattle saying state Fish and Wildlife had violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The group says planting of Chambers Creek steelhead undermines the recovery of wild Puget Sound steelhead, salmon and bull trout, which are listed as “threatened” under the ESA.
To view the news release by the Wild Fish Conservancy, go to http://wildfishconservancy.org/about/press-room/press-releases/washington2019s-steelhead-hatchery-programs-violating-esa.
Nearly one-million young steelhead were to be released in spring that are raised in nine hatcheries, and constitute about two-thirds of all hatchery steelhead production.
These fish would return as adults to spawn in 2016 and 2017.
Anderson mentioned in the state Fish and Wildlife release that his department is vulnerable to lawsuits over its hatchery steelhead operations because they were not approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service following the ESA listing of Puget Sound steelhead in 2007.
A state fisheries management plan was submitted in 2005 for its steelhead programs, relative to their potential impacts on Puget Sound wild Chinook, but NMFS had not completed its review.
“We believe strongly that we are operating safe and responsible hatchery programs that meet exacting, science-based standards,” Anderson said in the news release. “But without NMFS certification that our hatchery programs comply with the Endangered Species Act, we remain at risk of litigation. We are working hard to complete that process.”
The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission also agrees that both hatchery and wild fish are an important part of the fish recovery effort.
“There’s no way we can do it without both,” Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission said in a news release.
“It’s important to remember why we have hatcheries in the first place,” Frank said. “They were built to make up for lost natural steelhead and salmon production that has been nearly destroyed by habitat loss and damage. They have been an important part of salmon management in Washington for more than 100 years.”
From the tribal perspective while hatcheries are an asset, another vital part of the puzzle is the loss and degradation of habitat.
“The focus needs to be on fixing and protecting habitat, not fighting over hatcheries and the fish they produce,” Frank said in the release. “Climate change and exploding population growth are only making our habitat problems worse, which in turn makes hatcheries even more important for wild fish and all of us.”
Sport, tribal and non-tribal fishermen rely on hatcheries to provide fish to harvest as wild fish populations decline.
“The tribes and state learned a long time ago that our money, time and energy are better spent working together for the benefit of the resource than fighting each other in court,” Frank said. “We need cooperation, not litigation, to achieve salmon and steelhead recovery.”
State Fish and Wildlife is hopeful to reach a settlement by early May so that the plantings can still move forward.
“We want to continue discussions with the Wild Fish Conservancy in an attempt to address its issues,” Anderson said in the news release. “I’m hopeful that our decision to hold off on releasing hatchery fish will keep us from having to spend our time in a courtroom, arguing about injunctions, and instead let us find real solutions that promote wild steelhead recovery.”