Conservation groups file suit for court injunction to stop hatchery fish release in Elwha River

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

TACOMA –– Four conservation groups are seeking an injunction in federal court to stop hatchery coho and steelhead from being used to boost the Elwha River salmon run and to stop the removal of wild salmon to use in hatchery breeding.

“The science is clear: Hatchery fish are detrimental to wild fish recovery,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, one of the groups in the filing.

“We need to let the Elwha River heal itself and not jump-start it with nearly half a million maladapted hatchery fish per year.”

The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma asks the court to order the release of hatchery fish stopped until it can determine whether the practice complies with the federal Endangered Species Act.

The suit was filed against the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, Olympic National Park, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Conservation Angler, Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee and Wild Steelhead Coalition are plaintiffs.

Officials with the national park and Fish and Wildlife declined to comment. Tribal officials did not return phone calls for comment.

The four groups initially filed suit in February 2012 to stop tribal, state and federal wildlife officials from planting fish reared in the $16.4 million hatchery built as part of the Elwha River restoration that includes removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams.

Elwha Dam is fully removed, and Glines Canyon Dam upriver only has a stub about 35 feet tall remaining.

The latter concrete dam originally was 212 feet tall.

The first suit was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle last February after he determined that the hatchery program had received proper approval from federal authorities.

The tribe agreed to stop planting a steelhead species native to Chambers Creek, near Lakewood in Pierce County, in the Elwha fish runs.

The conservation groups then challenged the approval documents in a case still pending in U.S. District Court.

Hatchery fish are used to supplement wild species that eventually will recolonize 70 miles of habitat upstream.

As the dam removal was getting underway, officials with the tribe said they needed to use hatchery fish because of the risk that returning wild salmon could be killed by sediment released by the removal of the dams.

But the conservation groups argue the releases are harmful to steelhead, chinook and bull trout, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The wild fish advocates also contend that the practice of removing native steelhead, salmon and bull trout for breeding stock in the hatchery damages the native population.

The groups claim 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.

The action against the Elwha hatchery followed by three days Wild Fish Conservancy’s 60-day notice of intent to sue the state Department of Fish and Wildlife for planting the non-native Chambers Creek steelhead in rivers that drain into Puget Sound.

That suit contends that Chambers Creek steelhead harms wild Puget Sound steelhead, wild Puget Sound chinook and bull trout.

On the North Olympic Peninsula, the suit would apply to rivers and streams east of the Elwha River that are considered part of the Puget Sound drainage.

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Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at jsmillie@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: January 28. 2014 6:42PM
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