Friday, February 10, 2012

Haven't we learned our lesson? Government agencies and tribal representatives want to "restore" the Elwha river with hatchery fish

Its a sad day when conservation organizations have to file suit against government agencies such as Olympic National Park, NOAA Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the right thing is done for endangered and native species.  We expect these government entities to do the right thing based on the most sound science but too often that is not the case.  Are they not the agencies that fund the science that is analyzed to make decisions on ecosystem restoration?

I love to fish but making fishing better though stocking non-native species in an ecosystem that can clearly support the native species should be out of the question in my mind.  The crux of the issue is that most people don't know the difference between wild steelhead and hatchery steelhead and they don't care which one inhabits the stream they fish.  They just want the tug of a silver bullet on the end of their line.  What I can't understand is how the government agencies tasked with managing the ecosystems don't understand the difference either.  Hatchery and native steelhead and salmon are in some ways like the difference between maize and domestic corn.  A hatchery steelhead will grow big, strong and provide quite a meal or fight but if challenged with a climactic anomaly they no longer have the genes selected over millennia to survive and reproduce.  Much like domestic corn would fair without the careful eye and hand of a farmer.  Moreover, hatchery steelhead have never naturally reproduced and scientific evidence has shown that not only do they fail miserably when they try in the wild but they actually hurt the reproductive capacity of native steelhead by occupying prime spawning habitat (Kostow, K.E. and Steven R. Phelps. 2001).

The genes that have been selected for in both native maize, steelhead and salmon allow them to thrive and reproduce in the wild.  Hatchery fish and corn may be good for the economy but have no place and will not thrive or survive in our wild places.  No one is advocating for the mass decimation for corn throughout our National Parks; that would be ridiculous right?  But, that is exactly what the Park Service, NOAA Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe are advocating for hatchery steelhead.  One would think that the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the federal agencies tasked with this restoration would understand the difference between restoration of a sporting industry sustained by stocking and a native and natural reproduction of salmon and steelhead.  I bet they wouldn't restore a forest with trees they would have to replace every few years.  
Our environment is not an amusement park for humans nor are our National Parks.  If the native steelhead come back to the Elwha river in high enough numbers that we can fish safely for them again (and they will if allowed to) we should feel blessed for the experience.  If you are in favor of increasing stocking programs to catch a bunch of hatchery steelhead take your money and time to Ohio and the great lakes where there is no native steelhead or salmon run to ruin or South America where there are no native salmonids to begin with.   But remember, there is always an ecological price to pay when a non-native species is introduced and often it is not clear until it is too late. 

Here is the press release from the Wild Fish Conservancy:

For Immediate Release: Thursday, February 9, 2012

PO Box 402 Duvall, WA 98019 • Tel 425-788-1167 • Fax 425-788-9634 •

Contact: Kurt Beardslee, Wild Fish Conservancy, 206-310-9301
Brian Knutsen, Smith and Lowney, PLLC, 503-287-4194

Citing warnings from agency and independent scientists, four conservation groups filed suit today against several federal agencies and officials of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe (in their official capacities) for violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and ignoring the best available science and threatening the recovery of killer whales, Chinook salmon, and native steelhead by funding and operating fish hatchery programs in the Elwha River. The groups agree with federal and state scientists and a recent review by the Hatchery Scientific Review Group (HSRG) that restoration of the lower Elwha River and recolonization of the pristine upper Elwha River above Elwha and Glines Canyon dams should prioritize recovery of wild fish. The proposed reliance on large-scale hatchery releases undermines ecosystem recovery and violates the ESA. Wild Fish Conservancy, The Conservation Angler, the Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee, and the Wild Steelhead Coalition have brought the suit against the Olympic National Park, NOAA Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and representatives of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

The federal government is spending nearly $325 million for the dam removal project, opening nearly ninety miles of pristine riverine habitat in Olympic National Park, much of which is designated a wilderness area. Rather than allowing wild salmonids to naturally colonize this pristine habitat, the agencies and the Tribe are going ahead with a plan that will release approximately four million juvenile hatchery salmonids annually throughout the recovery, including the continued release of non-native steelhead during a five-year fishing moratorium. The hatchery releases will be supported by a new fish hatchery on the Elwha River built with $16.4 million of Stimulus Act funds. State and federal agency scientists pointed out that the current plan gives no measureable goals for wild fish recovery, provides no timetable for ceasing the hatchery production, and that ultimately, wild fish recovery is going to be hampered by the hatchery fish. A review released this week by the independent Hatchery Scientific Review Group (HSRG), which was organized and funded by Congress, has echoed these concerns.

“While the Tribe played an essential role in removing the dams,” said Kurt Beardslee, Executive Director of Wild Fish Conservancy, “their intent to now plant millions of hatchery fish in disregard of the scientific evidence undermines salmon recovery in the Northwest and the goals of the ESA. However you look at it, it’s a horrible precedent if left to stand.”

Will Atlas, chair of the FFF Steelhead Committee, stated “The science does not support planting of hatchery fish into this productive, pristine habitat.”

“This action is necessary,” said Rich Simms, president of the Wild Steelhead Coalition, “so that wild, not hatchery, steelhead will be restored to the Elwha and the Olympic Wilderness."

“Their plan is vague and uncertain about how and when these hatchery interventions will end,” said Pete Soverel, president of The Conservation Angler. “The Elwha deserves far better but will end up compromised like most of our other rivers if this plan is implemented.”

The groups believe that spending $325 million to open a wilderness watershed but then stocking it with hatchery fish is poor public policy and will likely provoke taxpayer skepticism toward salmon recovery and future efforts at dam removal. The groups support the right of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to harvest salmon and steelhead, but argue that intensive hatchery production throughout the recovery will reduce the capacity of wild salmon and steelhead to recolonize the newly available habitat, harming ESA listed Puget Sound steelhead, Chinook salmon, and southern resident killer whales that depend on Chinook salmon for their survival.

The groups are represented by Smith and Lowney, PLLC, of Seattle.