This month the Wild Steelhead Coalition joined The Conservation Angler, Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee, Washington Fly Fishing Club, and The Wild Fish Conservancy in issuing a 60-day Notice of Intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The basis of the lawsuit is NMFS’s violation of section 4(f) of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for failing to complete and implement a recovery plan for Puget Sound wild steelhead.
In 2007, NMFS listed Puget Sound wild steelhead as “threatened” under the ESA and assigned them a recovery priority number of 1 – the highest priority. The ESA requires NMFS to prepare and implement recovery plans for species listed under the statute in a timely manner. Generally, these recovery plans should be completed within two and a half years of listing. However, it has been eight years since NMFS listed Puget Sound wild steelhead, and they still have not completed a recovery plan.
As if eight years were not long enough, the recovery plan is still far from completion. Recently NMFS announced that it will be at least another four years – making it twelve years in total – until the final recovery plan is finished. Another four years of delay is unacceptable given the fragile status of Puget Sound wild steelhead – their numbers are approximately one to four percent of their historical abundance and most of their component populations face a high risk of extinction.
Making matters worse is that major decisions are already being made in the absence of a wild steelhead recovery plan. This situation is quite problematic since the recovery plan is the essential tool used to determine what is necessary to prevent the extinction of Puget Sound wild steelhead and to ensure that ongoing and future projects and management actions are consistent with recovery of the species.
The Wild Steelhead Coalition views NMFS as partners in the effort to restore Puget Sound wild steelhead, so the decision to join the lawsuit was not an easy one. However, on occasion difficult decisions and tough actions are required to ensure that the federal government fulfills its regulatory responsibility to protect and restore wild steelhead.
Wild steelhead are an iconic species in the Pacific Northwest, and one with enormous cultural and economic significance. To lose this vital piece of our natural heritage would be to deprive current and future anglers one of the great legacies of this region. A dozen years is too long to wait for a recovery plan for these incredible fish.
We hope this lawsuit will help bring about real and lasting steps towards the recovery of wild steelhead in the Puget Sound Basin so that the ecosystem as well as our children and grandchildren can experience these fish in some of our region’s most storied rivers.