Groups go to court to fight release of Elwha River hatchery fish

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Four conservation groups have ramped up their efforts to prevent the releases next spring of hatchery-bred steelhead and coho salmon smolts during the ongoing $325 million Elwha River salmon restoration project.

The groups filed requests last week in federal District Court in Tacoma for a preliminary injunction and a partial summary judgment to prevent the releases, saying the plans should be reviewed for compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act, or ESA, and that they would harm species listed as threatened under the act.

In their request for an injunction, the groups want to halt a planned April release of about 175,000 steelhead smolts and about 425,000 hatchery coho salmon smolts from the Lower Elwha Klallam hatchery into the Elwha River, much of which is in Olympic National Park.

“The large-scale releases of hatchery fish proposed to occur this spring will have severely deleterious effects on the wild fish population and their recovery potential,” said the injunction request, adding that several species are protected under federal law.

The releases would do “irreparable harm” to those species — Puget Sound bull trout, Puget Sound chinook and Puget Sound steelhead — that will be “significant and enduring,” the groups claim.

Port Angeles attorney Stephen Suagee, who is general counsel for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe, said the plans provide “more than adequate biological protection for native natural and wild fish.

Suagee, who said Friday he was still examining the injunction and partial summary judgment requests, added that hatchery fish are key to the river’s revival.

Next spring is also the target period for finishing the removal of Glines Canyon Dam — Elwha Dam was completely demolished by March — to open up the river and its tributaries to regeneration of the river’s severely depleted and once-prodigious fish populations.

Wild Fish Conservancy, The Conservation Angler, the Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee and the Wild Steelhead Coalition filed suit in District Court in February to halt the releases.

The organizations named Olympic National Park, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and representatives of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe as defendants.

The Department of the Interior, the tribe collectively and tribal Natural Resources Director Doug Morrill and hatchery manager Larry Ward individually should be found in violation of the ESA, according to the summary judgment request.

Threatened Puget Sound steelhead eggs and fry from the Elwha River were collected and captured to develop broodstock for the native steelhead program, were reared to adulthood, then were killed for their eggs and sperm in violation of the ESA, the groups allege.

Park spokeswoman Barb Maynes said Friday the park will not comment on ongoing litigation.

Responses to the request for a summary judgment are due by Dec. 3 and the preliminary injunction by Dec. 10, Suagee said.

A federal District Court judge will begin reviewing the summary judgment request no earlier than Dec. 7 and the injunction request no earlier than Dec. 14, Suagee said.

“The river’s wild salmonid populations are currently depressed due to the dams’ impacts, but it is anticipated that these populations will quickly expand as they are able to access and recolonize habitat above the dams,” according to the injunction request.

“The release of steelhead and coho salmon and the steelhead broodstock collection activities will cause illegal take of threatened salmonids,” it added.

Domesticated, less-hearty hatchery fish will harm wild fish through “genetic introgression,” the conservation groups claim.

When hatchery fish spawn, they will transfer maladaptive genes to the wild population, threatening the reproductive success and full recovery of wild salmon, according to the injunction request.

Suagee said he expects the National Marine Fisheries Service will finish its review of five Elwha River hatchery release programs by Christmas.

“We expect to see this decision from [the National Marine Fisheries Service] in the next month or so that will be based on the Endangered Species Act,” he added.

“That would be the thing that controls what happens going forward.”

The tribe has proposed release plans for native steelhead, fall coho, chum and pink salmon smolts, while the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has proposed a release plan for chinook smolts, Suagee said.

“This has been understood: that there needs to be some sort of role for hatchery fish to play, going back to the enactment of the Elwha River Restoration Act” of 1992, Suagee said, adding that smolt-release plans have been updated in the past 20 years as dictated by advances in science.

“We think that we have . . . put together the best of the available science in a way that is responsible,” he said.

As an alternative to a complete halt to the hatchery releases, the conservation groups are proposing that no more than 50,000 steelhead smolts and no more than 50,000 coho salmon smolts be released.

Kurt Beardslee, Wild Fish Conservancy’s executive director, said Friday that the groups wanted to file the legal actions “in a timely manner” before the fish were released.

“We were wanting to meet with the tribal representatives to talk with them,” he said.

“That’s been our request, but unfortunately, it’s been unfulfilled.”

Suagee said there have been attempts by parties involved the legal actions to come to an agreement, “and it has not worked out.”

Beardslee also pointed to the conclusions of the Hatchery Scientific Review Group, a congressionally established scientific panel that evaluated the smolt-release programs.

“The HSRG identified the ‘excessive hatchery program combined with the lack of a structured adaptive management process driven by an effective monitoring and evaluation program’ as its greatest concern regarding the plans to restore fish to the Elwha River,” according to the injunction request.

“The Elwha defendants continue to implement excessively sized hatchery programs without effective monitoring and adaptive management,” the document said.

Suagee said the hatchery plans were developed in consultation with the Hatchery Scientific Review Group.

“We are confident our plans incorporate the most important features of the HSRG recommendation,” Suagee said.

Suagee said it is premature to respond to the conservation groups’ alternative proposal.

“That’s part of what needs to be evaluated,” he said.

“We haven’t had a chance to get together with our own experts.”

________

Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at paul.gottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: November 24. 2012 6:02PM
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