TACOMA, Wash. (CN) - Environmental groups say a federal plan to stock a major river on the Olympic Peninsula with hatchery fish after dams are removed violates the Endangered Species Act and will hurt native fish and inhibit the recovery of wild salmon.
The Elwha River, on the Olympic Peninsula, flows 45 miles from its headlands in the Olympic Range into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Most of it is in Olympic National Park. It is one of few rivers in the Northwest that contains all five species of Pacific salmon, and also contains four anadromous trout species. Anadromous fish, such as salmon, spend most of their life in seawater, but migrate to fresh water to breed.
The Wild Fish Conservancy and its co-plaintiffs say government and tribal agencies developed the plan as a short-term solution to repopulate the river with fish for tribal "commercial-level" harvesting after two big dams on the Elwha are removed
The coalition sued in Federal Court, claiming the National Park Service, NOAA Fisheries Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe representatives and other agencies failed to consider environmental impacts as required by the Endangered Species Act before signing off on the fish restoration plan.
Congress authorized the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in 1992, under the Elwha Act, which mandates the full restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem and native fisheries, such as steelhead and salmon.
The dam removals began last year and are expected to be complete in 2014.
The coalition says the Elwha was one of the "most productive salmon streams in the Pacific Northwest" before the first dam was built on it in 1911.
Neither of the dams have fish passages, blocking anadromous fish migration to more than 70 miles of habitat.
The fish recovery plan will use a $16 million government- funded hatchery, operated by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, to stock the river, according to the complaint.
The tribe is not named as a defendant, though four of its fishery managers and biologists are.
"The hatchery programs described in the Fish Restoration Plan include several supplementation programs, whereby significant numbers of hatchery produced fish will be released in the Elwha River in a purported effort to 'jump-start' the recolonization of the river above the former dam sites," the complaint states.
"The Fish Restoration Plan describes large-scale levels of artificial fish production, especially for Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead. Such production levels far exceed that necessary or appropriate for conservation and recovery purposes, and are intended to facilitate commercial-level harvests on an expedited schedule," according to the complaint.
The coalition says the plan calls for "many" helicopter flights into the Olympic Wilderness to stock fish in the upper Elwha River basin.
The coalition says introducing hatchery fish will threaten the stamina of wild fish, and that introduction of non-native Chambers Creek steelhead will be especially harmful.
"Hatchery programs harm wild native fish through a variety of mechanisms. This occurs whether non-native stocks are used, such as the Chambers Creek steelhead, or local stocks are used in a supplementation program," according to the complaint.
The coalition says that hatchery supplementation programs "threaten the reproductive fitness and genetic diversity" of wild fish and can reduce reproduction rates.
"Studies have demonstrated that supplementation of Chinook salmon and steelhead results in such reduced reproductive fitness. Studies have also shown that both nonnative stocks and local stocks of steelhead produced in hatcheries lower their genetic adaptation through domestication selection, resulting in fish better suited for hatchery production than wild survival in rivers and oceans. Deleterious impacts to the fitness and genetics of wild stocks from supplementation programs using local wild stocks are particularly well-established for steelhead.
"Releasing non-native Chambers Creek steelhead poses genetic risks threatening the recovery of wild native steelhead in the Elwha River. Releasing non-native Chambers Creek steelhead poses genetic risks threatening the recovery of wild native steelhead in the Elwha River. Fishing on returning Chambers Creek steelhead stocks, which have been adapted through hatchery selection to an early return fish, has resulted in over harvest and depletion of the early wild steelhead run (December, January). That run was historically equal to or larger than the late winter run (March, April and May). Continued fishing on early returning Chambers Creek steelhead with traditional commercial fishing gear will prevent the recovery of the early wild run steelhead," according to the complaint.
The environmental groups claim the defendants violated the Endangered Species Act, the Elwha Act and the Wilderness Act by failing to prepare proper environmental impact statements and reports. They seek an injunction preventing implementation of the plan.
The plaintiffs are the Wild Fish Conservancy, the Wild Steelhead Coalition, the Federation of Fly Fishers, the Steelhead Committee, and Wild Salmon Rivers dba Conservation Angler.
They are represented by Brian Knutsen of Smith & Lowney in Seattle.
Western dams, once viewed as nearly miraculous projects that made agriculture possible in the arid West and provided electric power for vast regions, have come under increasing scrutiny, particularly since the 1986 publication of the book "Cadillac Desert," by the late Marc Reisner.
Reisner's book questions the long-term effects giant dams have on development, particularly development in places whose natural resources cannot sustain such vast numbers of people.