Steelhead Hatchery Programs Violating ESA

WILD FISH CONSERVANCY PO Box 402 Duvall, WA 98019 · Tel 425-788-1167 · Fax 425-788-9634 · [email protected]
Contact: Kurt Beardslee, Wild Fish Conservancy, 425-788-1167 Brian Knutsen, Smith and Lowney, PLLC, 971-373-8692
For Immediate Release: Thursday January 23, 2014

Today, Wild Fish Conservancy, a Puget Sound-based conservation group, sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), alleging that the agency’s planting of “Chambers Creek” steelhead in Puget Sound watersheds is in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The group states that the widespread planting of the highly domesticated hatchery stock across Puget Sound watersheds harms wild Puget Sound steelhead, wild Puget Sound Chinook salmon, and bull trout. All three species are listed as “threatened” under the ESA. Since the 2007 listing of Puget Sound steelhead, WDFW’s Chambers Creek steelhead hatchery programs have continued to operate without permission from the NOAA Fisheries Service.

The Chambers Creek fish are produced at numerous WDFW facilities across Washington. “The science is definite in that the planting of these domesticated hatchery fish is detrimental to protected wild fish,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy. “Any release of Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead should be prohibited as incompatible with the recovery of wild Puget Sound steelhead and the perpetuation of their legacy. But at the very least any existing hatchery program must operate with an appropriate permit from NOAA Fisheries.”

Recent research in the Skagit River watershed confirms that Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead are mating with wild steelhead. The offspring of hatchery steelhead and wild steelhead are substantially less likely to survive in the wild, further depressing the already low numbers of wild steelhead. The Skagit research is the latest of a growing number of studies that have concluded that the planting of domesticated hatchery steelhead has adverse effects on the health and resilience of wild steelhead. The hatchery steelhead program of the Skagit River watershed is the largest in the Puget Sound region.

Because juvenile hatchery steelhead are far larger than their wild counterparts, they prey on the juveniles of listed salmonids, compete for food, and attract predators. Hatchery facilities that block habitat and degrade water quality also cause problems for wild fish.
“WDFW has a split mandate between providing fishing opportunities and protecting wild steelhead,” Beardslee continued. “Ironically, what one hand of WDFW gives, the other takes away: the publically funded fish hatcheries undermine the publically funded wild fish recovery efforts, such as habitat restoration. Fully recovered wild steelhead populations would fulfill both mandates.”

In 1969, the steelhead was declared Washington’s official “state fish.” Despite that recognition, wild Puget Sound steelhead populations have declined precipitously over the past thirty years: the average region-wide abundance between 1980 and 2004 was less than 4% of what it was in 1900. Since being listed as threatened under the ESA in 2007, Puget Sound wild steelhead abundance has continued to decline. The recent five-year average is less than 3% of what it was in 1900. In 2010, scientists from
the regional science center of the NOAA Fisheries Service concluded “[i]n our opinion… Chambers Creek steelhead have no role in the recovery of native Puget Sound steelhead.” The unpermitted Chambers Creek steelhead hatchery programs are the sole subject of the 60-day notice letter, because rather than aiding wild steelhead, these programs harm wild steelhead and prevent their recovery.

The group is represented by Smith and Lowney, PLLC, of Seattle.