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Lawsuits Put NW Fish Hatcheries In The Crosshairs

Dec. 11, 2013 | KUOW
CONTRIBUTED BY:
Ashley Ahearn

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  • A hatchery fish is found among wild fish returning to the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula this past spring. Wild fish advocates around the region have filed several lawsuits calling for restrictions on the use of hatcheries. credit: Ashley Ahearn
A hatchery fish is found among wild fish returning to the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula this past spring. Wild fish advocates around the region have filed several lawsuits calling for restrictions on the use of hatcheries. | credit: Ashley Ahearn | rollover image for more

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A string of lawsuits around the region highlights a groundswell of opposition to the practice of raising salmon and steelhead in hatcheries to then be released into the wild. Wild fish supporters argue that hatcheries harm wild fish populations and that governmental agencies charged with protecting salmon and steelhead under the Endangered Species Act are in fact violating the Act in some instances by releasing hatchery-raised fish to intermingle with the wild ones.

Fish hatcheries date back to the late 1800s in the Northwest when new dams sprouted up around the region, stymying wild salmon spawning migrations. Today state and federal agencies release millions of hatchery-raised fish into Northwest rivers each year.

But a growing body of research shows that these hatchery fish are not only semi-domesticated and weaker than wild fish, they have also been shown to inter-breed with wild fish.

“We’re definitely seeing the beginning of a turning of the tide,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy.

Here’s a quick list of the lawsuits underway in the region:

  • The Elwha River: The Wild Fish Conservancy is suing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. WFC alleges that NOAA did not fully consider the potentially negative impacts the two hatcheries on the Elwha could have on the recovery of wild fish there. A ruling is expected from the U.S. District Court in Seattle in the coming weeks. You can read more here and here.

  • The McKenzie River: McKenzie Flyfishers and the Steamboaters are suing the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Army Corps of Engineers for violating the Endangered Species Act by releasing too many hatchery fish and not adequately preventing the interbreeding of hatchery spring Chinook with the wild run. The case was filed last week in U.S. District Court in Eugene.

  • The Sandy River: The Native Fish Society is suing the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and NOAA for failing to put in place plans to prevent hatchery fish from interbreeding with wild fish after two dams were removed on the Sandy in 2007. The case will be heard in U.S. District Court in Portland in January.

In addition to the pending lawsuits, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is seeking public comment on a proposal to stop releasing hatchery-raised steelhead in three tributaries of the lower Columbia River as part of a wild steelhead ‘gene bank’ plan. Comments are due by December 13.

—Ashley Ahearn

© 2013 KUOW
environment salmon Waypoints fish hatchery steelhead hatchery salmon wild fish
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