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.

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