In a recent Adipose column I mentioned the glacial pace of change. But anyone who has spent time around glaciers knows that every now and again, unpredictably, a huge chunk of ice will ‘calve’—that is it will separate from the glacier with a startling boom and spectacular fall. And so the glacial pace of anti-hatchery litigation has produced some calving. Mid-January the Native Fish Society and McKenzie Flyfishers suit on the Sandy was heard and a Federal judge ruled that the Sandy Hatchery violates the Endangered Species Act. So after decades of hitting our heads against the hatchery walls, finally—welcome news!
The judge concluded that the Hatchery Genetic Management Plan (HGMP) for the Sandy hatchery doesn’t prevent negative impacts on wild fish populations. The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife’s HGMP, which was approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), called for 1 million hatchery smolts a year in the Sandy with some acclimating in the Bull Run River, and weir traps upstream to catch stray hatchery adults. In his opinion, Judge Haggerty wrote “it is clear that the Sandy River Basin is of particular importance to the recovery of four listed species and is an ecologically critical area.” Noting a spike in stray hatchery Chinook after Marmot Dam’s removal in 2007, the judge indicated that it was illegal to rely on the agencies’ planned measures to limit hatchery impacts. What music to our ears—a judge finally stating that “excessive stray rates are harmful to these threatened fish species.” And even better was the logic that it is wrong of NMFS to rely upon mitigation measures that lack a “reasonable certainty” of reducing stray rates. So the message to the agencies was clear—stick to the science.
While we wait to see how the implications of the Sandy ruling play out, we (Wild Steelhead Coalition, Wild Fish Conservancy, FFF Steelhead Committee, and The Conservation Angler) continue to await a ruling from Judge Settle in our multi-year litigation to prevent or reduce the release of hatchery steelhead on the Elwha. And there continue to be other cases on the McKenzie and in California. But in the meantime, we also recently filed a request with the Court for a preliminary injunction in an effort to force the reduction or elimination of the spring releases of hatchery coho salmon and steelhead, and prevent any take of listed adult steelhead for hatchery broodstock on the Elwha.
As if this wasn’t enough, the Wild Fish Conservancy recently filed a 60 Day Notice of Intent to Sue the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) over the release of Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead in Puget Sound watersheds claiming that the impacts on wild fish are a violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). And what most people don’t know is that WDFW’s Chambers Creek steelhead hatchery programs have not had NMFS’ approval to operate since the Puget Sound steelhead were listed as threatened in 2007. And yes, that’s the same NMFS that Judge Haggerty told two weeks ago to stop ignoring the harm to wild fish from hatchery fish on the Sandy.
So the plot thickens. As those of you who have read my prior columns or heard me speak at events know, eliminating hatchery impacts and creating Wild Steelhead Management Zones are the front line of wild steelhead recovery. The thirteen years since the US Congress Funded Hatchery Reform have collectively been the worst for wild steelhead returns in Washington history. In order to justify the hundreds of millions spent on habitat restoration that will not yield results for a couple of decades, we need to make sure there will be wild steelhead around to enjoy that habitat. And this is why the current heightened level of activity in the courts is so critical. But it will take more than court action to get where we need to be—which is why your responses to our calls for action are so important. This year is off to a very interesting start—so stay tuned and be prepared to hear more about where your support can make a difference.
In a recent email exchange prior to the Sandy decision Bill McMillan wrote, in reference to the chances of winning a case that would reverse federal and state management of hatcheries “I suppose it is much like steelhead fly fishing in winter and one just has to keep casting in the hope that lightning will eventually strike. “