By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News
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TACOMA –– Responding to wild-fish advocates, a federal court has ordered federal authorities to revise plans to restore Elwha River fish runs, ruling the government did not fully study how many hatchery fish should be used to bring salmon back to the recently undammed river.
Judge Benjamin Settle ruled last week in U.S. District Court in Tacoma that federal agencies did not adequately consider the effects a large-scale release of hatchery-reared salmon and steelhead would have on wild-fish populations.
The government's plan, he said, set “arbitrary” numbers of how many hatchery fish would be released that “may not be based on consideration of the impacts on the endangered species or the wild runs.”
The Elwha River once produced 400,000 spawning fish, a number that declined to fewer than 3,000 after the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were built without fish passage structures in the early 20th century.
As part of the largest dam-removal project in U.S. history, federal and tribal agencies developed a plan to restore the fish runs and built a $16.4 million hatchery west of Port Angeles.
Conservation groups Wild Fish Conservancy, Conservation Angler, Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee and Wild Steelhead Coalition asked the court for an injunction to stop the release of hatchery fish.
The suit was filed against the federal National Park Service, Department of Commerce, Department of the Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The four groups initially filed suit in February 2012 to stop tribal, state and federal wildlife officials from planting fish reared in the hatchery.
Hatchery fish are used to supplement wild species that eventually will recolonize 70 miles of habitat upstream.
The wild-fish advocates claimed that the fish runs can be rehabilitated without removing native fish and by planting “a much smaller” number of fish than is laid out in the plan.
“This NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process did not rationally consider the checkered history of hatcheries versus the 10,000-year-old history of wild-fish success,” said Kurt Beardlee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy.
Federal and tribal agencies did not return phone calls for comment.
Settle agreed with the conservation groups' claim that the federal agencies did not properly consider the impact of a reduced planting of hatchery fish.
The federal hatchery program calls for the release of 7.5 million fish into the river each year.
More hatchery-reared fish would return to the hatchery as broodstock than wild fish under the government's plan, which would release 175,000 hatchery steelhead and 425,000 hatchery coho, Settle ruled.
As the plan was written, 90 percent of steelhead and 82 percent of coho returning to the hatchery would have been born in the hatchery instead of being wild species.
He also noted that the federal biological opinion on the plan's effect said it would only return enough chinook to sustain the hatchery program and would not have been able to accomplish the government's goal of restoring the chinook population in 20 to 30 years.
The conservation groups proposed a reduced release of 50,000 steelhead smolt and 50,000 coho smolt.
Settle ordered the two groups to work together to determine how many hatchery fish should be sustainably introduced without damaging wild species before the spring fish runs begin.
He also ordered them to develop a plan for the fall run.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at email@example.com.