Wild Fish Conservancy Sues Feds Over Mitchell Act Hatcheries

UPDATED 4: P.M., MARCH 31, 2016

A massively important set of Northwest salmon and steelhead hatcheries came under legal threat today as an environmental group sued the federal government over their funding.

The Wild Fish Conservancy claims that the National Marine Fisheries Service and Department of Commerce is funding the Mitchell Act system without complying with a part of the Endangered Species Act.

A FISH CHECKER TAKES NOTES ON WIND RIVER SPRING CHINOOK, A HATCHERY STOCK GROWN AT A MITCHELL ACT-FUNDED FACILITY IN THE COLUMBIA GORGE. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

A FISH CHECKER TAKES NOTES ON WIND RIVER SPRING CHINOOK, A HATCHERY STOCK GROWN AT A MITCHELL ACT-FUNDED FACILITY IN THE COLUMBIA GORGE. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

The hatcheries, operated by state and tribal authorities, produce 60 million Chinook, coho, steelhead, sockeye and other species annually, and are the keystone for sport, commercial and tribal fisheries in the ocean and Columbia Basin. The Mitchell Act was created by Congress to mitigate for declining runs in the system.

WFC, which is based in Pugetropolis, says that the feds have failed to perform section 7 ESA consultations on nearly all 62 hatchery programs in the system since 1999. They say that the millions of dollars spent on recovering ESA-listed salmon stocks is threatened by the millions spent on hatcheries.

When the overly litigious organization threatened the lawsuit in January, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife manager said he was pretty confident about his agency’s updated plans for dealing with threats to wild fish from hatchery-produced fish and said that 24 were ready for NMFS to review.

In a letter that NMFS sent to WFC and its lawyer earlier this month, the federal agency laid out where it was with those reviews, noting that in January it filed a notice on the Federal Register indicating that it intended to fulfill those section 7 obligations and was preparing a biological opinion that will cover, in part, plans for distributing Mitchell Act funds, completing that work by July.

“We have every intent to fulfill required consultations on this issue and we are working hard to make that happen,” says NMFS spokesman Michael Milstein in Portland. “We do not plan to distribute Mitchell Act funding until our Biological Opinion is completed and until we have completed consultation. We continue to work with hatchery operators to improve hatchery practices through hatchery and genetic management plans and other means.”

The letter also notes that four hatchery steelhead programs in the Lower Columbia were terminated in 2014 because they were “likely to adversely affect” wild steelhead in that area.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Portland and drew condemnation from sportfishing interests and tribal managers there alike.

NSIA has worked for decades with sport, commercial, tribal, state, federal and private interests on protection and recovery of listed stocks in the Columbia Basin, with Wild Fish Conservancy notably absent,” said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. “Now, flush with money from other lawsuits, WFC is chasing their next settlement.  Regrettably, those of us who care about and/or depend on fish and fishing in the Columbia basin will have to drop other efforts to devote our resources on opposing this misguided lawsuit. In the end it’s the fish that will suffer. This is particularly heartbreaking for all the families who depend on Columbia River stocks from Alaska, Canada, Washington, Oregon and Idaho.”

WFC is also suing NMFS over a Puget Sound steelhead recovery plan, and precisely two years to the day ago it sued WDFW over Puget Sound early winter hatchery steelhead, eventually settling out of court with a $45,000 payday.  It has filed a myriad of other lawsuits targeting hatchery fish or facilities.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission was no less happy.

“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 the organization in a press release. “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. In the tribes’ experience, that path only leads to fewer fish in the rivers and does virtually nothing to improve the condition of natural runs. The tribes have demonstrated with their own successful programs how carefully managed hatcheries can rebuild abundant naturally spawning runs in our rivers and streams. Those truly interested in recovery are better served by putting their efforts into restoring the wild rivers that salmon need.”

A partial list of stocks supported by the Mitchell Act, named after Oregon’s then-state fish culturist, Hugh C. Mitchell, would include:

Spring Chinook: Kalama, Clackamas, Sandy, Wind, Drano/Little White Salmon
Fall Chinook (tule): Big Creek, Spring Creek, Drano Lake
Coho: Youngs Bay, Big Creek, Toutle, Kalama, Washougal, Sandy, Klickitat,
Sockeye: Redfish Lake
Steelhead; Big Creek, Gnat Creek, Kalama, Washougal, Clackamas, Sandy, Klickitat, Ringold

CRITFC says the tribal programs most threatened by the lawsuit are on the Klickitat and Yakima Rivers in South-central Washington.

4 thoughts on “Wild Fish Conservancy Sues Feds Over Mitchell Act Hatcheries”

  1. The issue really is. support short term hatcheries approach to salmon – supply the demand for catchability.
    VS
    eliminate hatcheries and improve the watersheds/environments to enable long term wild sustainability.

    The former (Hatcheries) is very desirable so everyone can catch fish. I get that. I catch them too.

    The latter (no Hatcheries) is my desire in an effort to not rely on hatcheries long term. Hatcheries have not taken many (if any?) salmon populations off the endangered or threatened lists. Why would anyone think costly hatcheries are a long term solution to a long term problem? They have failed us in the long game. They have helped us in the short game.
    commercial fisheries also should probably be curtailed for wild solution to work. Sport fisheries would also be impacted. But imagine your kids not having to fish an area just because its fish come from a hatchery program.
    I for one cant stand seeing people lined up to catch hatchery fish. Its disgusting what we have done to the salmons environment and we need to work on that for a long term solution.
    I am sure most disagree with me. So be it. But hatcheries have failed us in regards to thinking about bwhats best for salmon, they only care about what’s best for people catching the salmon.

    1. How would you rank in order from highest to lowest as the threats to wild fish on the Columbia river in order?

      Tribal Netting?
      Damns?
      Sea Lions?
      Hatcheries?
      Ocean Conditions?
      Spawning Habitat?
      Commercial Fishing?
      Recreational Fishing?

  2. I’ve heard on April Vokey’s podcast that one of the native hatcheries was designed like a natural river system. If that’s the case, why couldn’t we make all of our hatcheries like that, but on a grander scale. We have one common goal, to save and improve our fish population, especially for the generations to come. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have our waterways and fish habitat cleaned up, giving them a chance to grow and populate themselves. Here’s another crazy idea, put a tax on eating and catching fish. Up the costs on fishing licenses and restrict fishing locations and times, and restrict the amount of guides in that state. With the tax money used to clean up our waterways for fish spawning grounds and fish pathways past dams. People will get upset, but generations after us will be even more upset knowing that we were so stupid and angry bickering with each other, we couldn’t even figure out how to save fish.

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