PORT ANGELES — Hatchery fish can continue playing their disputed role in the largest dam removal and salmonid recovery project in U.S. history, a federal court has decided.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week confirmed the continued use of hatchery-bred salmon to replenish a decimated Elwha River run being coaxed back to life following the historic removal of the Glines Canyon and Elwha dams, completed in 2014.
In doing so the court rejected a 2015 appeal by the Wild Fish Conservancy, Wild Steelhead Coalition, Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee and Wild Salmon Rivers, doing business as Conservation Angler, upholding Judge Benjamin Settle’s U.S. District Court ruling.
The three-person appeals panel sided April 18 with the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service and four members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s senior fisheries and hatchery staff who are overseeing the hatchery-fish effort.
“We’re happy,” Lower Elwha attorney Stephen Suagee of Port Angeles said Monday.
“It basically affirms the district court on all counts.”
Beginning this spring, the tribe will release smolts up to 18 months old that are expected to return to the Elwha River in three or four years to spawn, Suagee said.
Suagee said 25,772 coho smolts were released March 29.
The release of 175,000 steelhead smolts began April 12 and is ongoing, while a release of 71,248 chum salmon is planned for this week, Suagee said.
“Some will go past the hatchery and up toward the dam sites, which is the whole idea here.”
Olympic National Park acting spokeswoman Penny Wagner referred queries about the decision to NOAA Fisheries.
NOAA spokesman Jim Milbury put the ruling in a broad context Monday in an email.
“We’re very pleased the Ninth Circuit found our analysis was complete and that both NOAA and the Park Service have thoroughly [and] adequately assessed the impacts involved, from the dam removal process to the efforts to recover salmon and steelhead populations,” wrote Milbury.
Anti-hatchery-fish groups originally filed their challenge in 2012, well before the completion of the $325 million dam removal and fish restoration project.
They sought limits of no more than 50,000 hatchery steelhead smolts and 50,000 hatchery coho salmon smolts into the Elwha and its tributaries, and wanted no more than 60 adult steelhead, no more than 30 of which are female, to be removed annually from the river to provide broodstock.
“These hatchery fish will overwhelm the small, fragile wild fish populations that remain in the river, severely impeding or even preventing the full recovery of native anadromous fish,” the Conservancy and its partners in the suit said in a Dec. 1, 2014, court filing, claiming hatchery programs were implemented unlawfully without Endangered Species Act authorization.
After the lawsuit was initiated, “[National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service] hastily approved the hatchery programs under the ESA,” according to the appeal.
Wild Fish Conservancy co-founder and Executive Director Kurt Beardslee did not return a call for comment Monday afternoon.
The appeals court found key points in the challenge, led by the Conservancy, moot, asserting that Fisheries had addressed concerns expressed by Settle by issuing a revised environmental assessment — an assessment that had gone unchallenged by the hatchery-fish opponents, according to the court’s opinion.
“The subsequent [environmental assessment] reasonably concluded, after thorough analysis, that the risks posed by the hatchery programs were minimal and that approving the programs would have no significant impact on the environment,” the court said.
“The EA also reasonably concluded that the programs were not highly controversial, and the existence of ‘some’ uncertainty did not require an EIS.”
In its court filing, the federal government also strongly endorsed the hatcheries’ usage.
“[Wild Fish Conservancy] misses an important element of the context: hatcheries for most stocks are not new and were critical to conserving the remaining native Elwha fish while the dams were in place and natural survival in the lower river was gravely threatened,” according to the filing.
“Approximately 95 percent of recent threatened chinook salmon returns are hatchery origin and the program has operated since 1976.”
The Fisheries Service also had endorsed hatchery usage for the project in a 1996 environmental impact statement, the court said.
Suagee said the hatchery program ensures that native Elwha fish stocks, including pink and chum salmon, retain the genetic characteristics of fish originating in Elwha in the face of “lethal” sediment released by the dams’ removal, estimated at 34 million cubic yards.
“We needed the hatchery to rear native fish to make sure the native species would survive the several years onslaught of all that sediment, and so far, so good.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].