An advocacy group for wild fish in the Columbia Basin filed
notice this week of intent to sue over alleged harmful impacts of hatchery fish
on wild fish in the Columbia Basin.
The move by the Wild Fish Conservancy triggered immediate
The Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association issued a
statement: “If WFC legitimately cared about wild fish recovery in the Columbia River,
hatcheries would be the last thing they would be concerned about,” said Liz
Hamilton, executive director of the association.
“More spill would double the returns of wild spring Chinook
back to Idaho, potentially taking them off of the ESA lists. Instead they
attack the hatcheries that were built to mitigate the building of eight federal
dams in a system of over 208 dams. The only effect wild fish would notice from
WFC activities in the Columbia would be the loss of tens of millions in funding
for conservation and recovery.”
Sara Thompson, speaking for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal
Fish Commission, also touted the benefits of Mitchell Act hatcheries.
“Carefully managed hatcheries play a critical role in
Columbia Basin salmon recovery by rebuilding salmon populations while
supporting fisheries. Lawsuits like these could hurt salmon recovery efforts
and distract us from the bigger picture of working together to reform hatchery
The Mitchell Act program, named after a pioneer Oregon fish
culturist, Hugh Mitchell, now produces about 60 million smolts annually and
fuels about 75 percent of the Columbia Basin’s salmon and steelhead returns.
In an effort to mitigate adverse effects on fisheries in the
Columbia Basin as a result of dams, logging and pollution, Congress enacted the
Mitchell Act in 1938.
According to the notice of intent to sue, the act authorized
federal support for about 60 hatchery programs that now produce about 63
million fish annually, at a cost of $12 million to $22 million per year.
The Wild Fish Conservancy notice basically contends that
fish raised in hatcheries, despite good intents, are harmful to wild fish
“Adverse genetic effects result in losses of fitness and
decreases in diversity caused by genetic mechanisms,” the notice states,
further pointing out adverse effects acknowledged by the National Marine
The NMFS has stated that a “defining characteristic of
anadromous salmonids is their high fidelity to their natal streams. Their
ability to home with great accuracy and maintain high fidelity to natal streams
has encouraged the development of locally adapted genetic characteristics that
allow the fish to use specific habitats. The genetic risks that artificial
propagation pose to naturally produced populations can be separated into three
types of effects: loss of within-populations diversity, outbreeding effects,
and domestication selection.
“In most cases, genetic change is caused by the hatchery
environment or by management of the hatchery program, and does not become an
issue until mating occurs between hatchery-origin and natural-origin fish,
either of the same or different populations,” states a citation from the NMFS
outlined in the notice of intent to sue.
The notice contends that federal agencies are in “violation
of the ESA by providing, authorizing, approving and disbursing funds for the
operations and maintenance of, and improvements and upgrades to, hatchery
programs under the Mitchell Act” without complying with procedural
“The funding addressed in this notice letter encompasses
each and every distribution of funds under Mitchell Act for operations,
maintenance, improvements and-or upgrades made during the last six years and
any such distribution that occurs after the issuance of this notice letter,”
the prospective plaintiffs state.