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Court finds Elwha hatchery violates federal law

In late March, a federal court in Tacoma found that federal agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act in approving plans to release hatchery fish to the Elwha River.

In late March, U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle found that agencies violated the statute by failing to adequately consider alternatives to the proposed large-scale releases of hatchery salmon and steelhead.

The hatchery programs approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service authorize the release of more than 7.5 million hatchery fish each year into the Elwha River, but the fisheries service evaluated just two different-sized programs: one that would release the entire 7.5 million and another that would release zero hatchery fish.

Settle ruled this violated federal policy, finding that fisheries’ contention that there is no other viable alternative was unsupported and arbitrary.

“The claim is that the Elwha hatchery is needed to help wild fish recover, but the facts already show something quite different,” Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, said. Beardslee stated that more than 82 percent of the coho and 40 percent of the steelhead died in the Elwha hatchery, not the river, before they could be released this year because of faulty hatchery operations.

"Now couple that loss with the fact that released hatchery fish, even those from wild parents, are far less successful surviving and reproducing over time than wild fish," Beardslee said. "Left to their own devices, wild fish are already making it through the sediment plume and reaching spawning grounds. This NEPA process did not rationally consider the checkered history of hatcheries versus the 10,000-year history of wild fish success.”

In February 2012, the Wild Fish Conservancy, The Conservation Angler, the Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee and the Wild Steelhead Coalition filed suit against the Olympic National Park, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and hatchery managers for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. The suit alleged that agencies and tribe officials were violating federal policy and ignoring the best available science by funding and operating fish hatchery programs in the Elwha River.

The conservation groups proposed a reduced release of 50,000 steelhead smolt and 50,000 coho smolt.

In January, plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to halt or reduce planned releases of hatchery coho salmon and steelhead and stop the planned taking of threatened adult steelhead for use as hatchery broodstock. That matter is now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on an emergency motion for injunctive relief and the court is expected to rule by April 10.

 

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