WDFW will not release ‘early winter’ hatchery steelhead this spring unless legal issues are resolved

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OLYMPIA –The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) will not release early winter hatchery steelhead into rivers around Puget Sound as planned this spring unless it can resolve issues raised in January by the Wild Fish Conservancy and restated in a lawsuit the group filed this week.

Phil Anderson said WDFW leaders made the “very difficult” decision last week under the threat of litigation by the Conservancy, a non-profit group based in Duvall, Wash. In late January, the group filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the department over its management of early winter (Chambers Creek) steelhead hatchery programs.

On Monday, March 31, as the 60-day period ended, the group filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Seattle against the department and the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, alleging WDFW has violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). The group contends WDFW’s planting of Chambers Creek steelhead undermines the recovery of wild Puget Sound steelhead, salmon and bull trout, which are listed as “threatened” under the ESA.

Anderson said the department planned to releases about 900,000 juvenile steelhead this spring into rivers that flow into Puget Sound. Those fish are produced at nine hatcheries and represent about two-thirds of all hatchery steelhead produced by WDFW hatcheries in the Puget Sound region. Steelhead planted this spring would return to the rivers in 2016 and 2017.

He said WDFW is vulnerable to lawsuits over its hatchery steelhead operations because they were not approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) following the ESA listing of Puget Sound steelhead in 2007. WDFW submitted Hatchery Genetic Management Plans to NMFS in 2005 for its steelhead programs, relative to their potential impacts on Puget Sound wild chinook salmon. However, NMFS’ review of those plans was not completed. WDFW is nearing completion of updates to its steelhead plans to reflect recent hatchery improvements based on the most current science.

“We believe strongly that we are operating safe and responsible hatchery programs that meet exacting, science-based standards,” he said. “But without NMFS certification that our hatchery programs comply with the Endangered Species Act, we remain at risk of litigation. We are working hard to complete that process.”

Jim Scott, who heads the WDFW Fish Program, said the department and the Conservancy were not able to reach an agreement on WDFW’s steelhead hatchery management practices during the 60-day period, but he said discussions will continue in the hope of reaching a settlement by early May so that the 2014 plantings can take place.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to quickly reach an agreement that will promote the recovery of Puget Sound steelhead and provide for tribal and recreational fisheries,” Scott said. “Going to court would force us to redirect our staff to defend our programs in litigation, rather than focusing on conservation and restoration of Puget Sound steelhead.”

Scott said the department acknowledges that scientific findings indicate certain hatchery practices may pose an impediment to wild fish productivity and recovery.  But he noted state managers have worked hard to reform hatchery programs and have taken significant steps to protect ESA-listed wild steelhead.  Actions since 2004 include:

  • Reducing the number of early winter steelhead released in the Puget Sound watershed by more than 50 percent to minimize interactions between hatchery fish and wild steelhead.
  • Reducing the number of release locations from 27 to nine.
  • Collecting eggs from early-returning hatchery fish to maintain separation in the spawning times of hatchery and wild fish.
  • Using genetic monitoring to guard against hatchery steelhead interacting with wild stocks.

“We want to continue discussions with the Wild Fish Conservancy in an attempt to address its issues,” Anderson said. “I’m hopeful that our decision last week to hold off on releasing hatchery fish will keep us from having to spend our time in a courtroom, arguing about injunctions, and instead let us find real solutions that promote wild steelhead recovery.”

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