A Northwest environmental group yesterday filed a lawsuit in
the U.S. District Court of Oregon in Portland against the National Marine
Fisheries Service and the U.S. Department of Commerce for funding hatchery
programs in the Columbia River basin under the Mitchell Act without complying
with section 7 of the federal Endangered Species Act.
The advocacy group for wild fish in the basin filed a notice
of intent to sue in January over alleged harmful impacts of hatchery fish on
wild fish, contending that fish raised in hatcheries, despite good intents, are
harmful to wild fish populations.
(CBB, January 15, 2016, “Wild Fish Advocates File Notice
Against Mitchell Act Hatcheries, 60 Million Smolts Annually,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/435862.aspx)
“These programs,” the group said in a press release,
“adversely affect five distinct population segments (subspecies) of both Chinook
salmon and steelhead listed under the ESA, as well as threatened or endangered
coho, chum, and sockeye salmon and bull trout, along with their critical
The filing drew the immediate ire of the Columbia River
Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which expressed “disappointment and frustration”
over the filing. CRITFC represents four Columbia River treaty tribes: Yakama,
Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce.
The tribes called the filing a misguided attack that
disregards constitutionally protected promises made to them by the United
States to replace fish runs that were damaged by the construction and operation
of federal hydroelectric dams.
“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,” said Jeremy Wolf, chairman of CRITFC. “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.”
That’s a path the leads to fewer fish in the rivers and does
virtually nothing to improve the condition of natural runs, he added. “Those
truly interested in recovery are better served by putting their efforts into
restoring the wild rivers that salmon need.”
The premise of the Conservancy’s lawsuit is that each of the
Northwest’s 62 hatchery programs must comply with the ESA and, because NMFS
funds Mitchell Act hatcheries, an ESA consultation is required for each of the
According to the Conservancy’s court brief, federal agencies
are required under the ESA to “insure that any action authorized, funded, or
carried out by such agency…is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence
of any endangered or threatened species or result in the destruction or adverse
modification of habitat that has been designated as critical for such
However, to do that, a federal agency planning to fund an
action, such as a hatchery, that might affect ESA-listed species or their
critical habitat are required to consult with NMFS and the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service to quantify the effects of the proposed federally-funded
action, the adverse impacts on the listed species and their critical habitat,
the Conservancy said.
“Such consultation concludes with NMFS’ and/or FWS’ issuance
of a biological opinion determining whether the action is likely to jeopardize
ESA-protected species or result in adverse modification of critical habitat,”
the group said.
The Conservancy court brief is at http://wildfishconservancy.org/copy_of_news/in-the-news/001.0.complaintMitchellActColumbia33116.pdf
“These programs discharge over sixty million hatchery fish
into the Columbia River Basin every year, knowingly causing harm to threatened
and endangered salmon, steelhead, and bull trout, “said Kurt Beardslee,
executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy.
“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. It’s been 17 years; NMFS needs to step up, initiate
consultation, and put the needed solutions in place,” Beardslee continued. “We
are investing millions of state and federal dollars every year on salmon
recovery, and at the same time spending millions of public dollars on hatchery
programs that are compromising that investment.”
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.
Since at least 1999, NMFS has failed to comply with the ESA
consultation requirements for nearly all of the Mitchell Act hatchery programs,
the Conservancy contends.
“Consultations prior to 1999 are outdated, as several salmon
and steelhead population units in the Columbia Basin have since been listed
under the ESA and considerable new scientific information regarding the adverse
effects of hatchery salmon on wild, ESA-listed, salmon has become available,”
the group concludes. “Both new listings and new scientific information required
that previous consultations be re-initiated immediately.”
CRITFC said the lawsuit will instead delay NMFS’ ESA
consultations and that it actually seeks to halt funding for hatchery programs
to restore salmon runs.
“These programs, which support tribal and non-tribal
fishing, are key to the Yakama Nation’s program to sustain the ancient tribal
fishery on the Klickitat River and are an important tool in restoring natural
runs of salmon in the Klickitat, Wenatchee, Umatilla, and Clearwater river
basins,” CRITFC said. Tribal hatcheries have been an important part of salmon
recovery and the lawsuit could impact tribal programs on the Klickitat and
Yakima rivers in Washington.
CRITFC suggests the Conservancy look at the problem of poor
fish runs differently.
“Columbia Basin salmon were not decimated because of
hatcheries. The Columbia Basin has hatcheries because natural fish were
decimated,” Wolf said. “The Fish Conservancy litigation won’t do anything to
help the fish, but it will certainly hurt the most vulnerable fishing
community: tribal members who rely on these programs.”
He added that this litigation “perpetuates the myth that all
hatchery fish are bad and cannot be used in recovery.”
About 80 percent of salmonids in the basin were born in
hatcheries rather than in the wild, according to the court brief.
“The hatchery-bred fish harm wild fish by competing for food
and rearing habitat and by preying on the wild fish. Hatchery programs also
harm wild populations through genetic interactions. Salmonids reared in a
hatchery environment become less fit to survive and reproduce in the wild.
“Hatchery fish released en masse return as adults to
interact genetically with wild fish, thereby introgressing their domesticated
genes into the wild population and reducing wild productivity,” the brief said.
Because of these adverse effects, consultations are
required. Both NMFS and the Department of Commerce have failed to initiate or
reinitiate consultations and, so, are in violation of the ESA.
The Wild Fish Conservancy is a nonprofit organization
located in Duvall, Washington. It says it is dedicated to the preservation and
recovery of the Northwest’s native fish species and the ecosystems upon which
those species depend.