The Wild Fish Conservancy filed a lawsuit Thursday that accuses two federal agencies of violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to consider the impacts of Columbia River Basin hatcheries on threatened and endangered wild fish and their habitat.
The group says the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Department of Commerce should be considering the negative impacts of hatcheries on wild fish before it spends hatchery program funding authorized under a federal law known as the Mitchell Act.
The filing argues the federal agencies are legally obligated to ensure that their actions are not likely to jeopardize threatened and endangered species of salmon, steelhead or bull trout, but they’re not doing the proper reviews to assess the damage hatcheries could be causing to wild fish.
Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, said the federal government is spending millions of dollars to recover threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead, but the same agencies working toward recovery may also be funding part of the problem for those fish.
“We want to make sure we’re not funding both the problem and the solution,” he said. “We put millions into these programs without knowing how much harm they’re causing."
The fisheries service identified hatcheries as a threat to wild fish back in 1999, he said, but it still hasn’t reviewed how the 62 federally funded hatchery programs may be hurting endangered species.
“These programs discharge over 60 million hatchery fish into the Columbia River Basin every year, knowingly causing harm to threatened and endangered salmon, steelhead, and bull trout," he said. “It’s ironic that NMFS is required by law to consult with themselves, yet they continue to fund programs that they themselves have identified as contributing to the decline of the very same listed fish they’re charged with protecting."
Studies show that hatchery fish compete with wild fish for food and habitat and can negatively affect the genetics of wild species when the two interbreed. Beardslee said wild fish also get caught in fisheries designed to target hatchery fish.
NMFS spokesman Michael Milstein said in an e-mail that his agency responded to the Wild Fish Conservancy’s notice of intent to sue in March, in a letter explaining that the required Endangered Species Act consultation for this year’s federal hatchery funding was already underway.
“We have said we will not release this funding until we have completed appropriate consultation,” Milstein wrote. “They need to look elsewhere for a real issue.”
In March, NMFS Chief of Hatchery and Inland Fisheries Rob Jones wrote a letter to the Wild Fish Conservancy saying his agency will complete all of the required analysis of hatchery impacts before distributing funding in August.
He also noted that the agency intends to direct federal funds to hatcheries with improved practices and minimal impacts, and that steelhead hatchery programs at four locations were terminated in 2014 because they were likely to adversely affect wild steelhead.
Several Columbia River tribes released a statement expressing disappointment and frustration at the lawsuit because it will put valuable salmon fisheries at risk.
Jeremy Wolf, chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, released a statement saying the suit aims to halt funding for hatchery programs that support both tribal and non-tribal fisheries.
“Lawsuits like these are expensive distractions from the important work of salmon recovery, and they jeopardize the livelihoods of tribal and non-tribal fishing communities,” he said. “The lawsuit is based on the flawed logic that hatcheries caused the decline of wild salmon abundance and wrongly asserts that simply closing hatcheries will increase wild salmon abundance. In the tribes experience, that path only leads to fewer fish in the rivers and does virtually nothing to improve the condition of natural runs.”
According to Wolf's group, not all of the tribal hatchery programs will be affected by the lawsuit, but the programs on the Klickitat and Yakima rivers in Washington could be. Wolf said the tribes have found that “carefully managed hatcheries” can rebuild naturally spawning salmon runs.
Beardslee said his group doesn't hate hatcheries, but he is worried that tax dollars may be funding part the problem for wild fish. While he recognizes that hatchery-supported salmon fisheries have major economic value in the Northwest, he said, "you also have to put a value on the loss of our wild fish, and that’s an immense loss. It’s 10,000 years of genetic heritage."