Groups Sue to Prod State Action
by Robert McClure
Citing studies showing that hatchery-produced salmon are chomping down legally protected wild salmon, conservationists this week sued to halt this spring's release of more than 5 million hatchery fish in the Puget Sound region.
Such a move would likely severely curtail sport fishing for salmon in years to come.
Washington Trout and the Native Fish Society filed suit Wednesday in federal court in Seattle against the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Plans to reduce the loss of chinook salmon protected under the Endangered Species Act are more than two years overdue, the groups pointed out in their suit.
The wild chinook salmon guarded by the law are being eaten by coho salmon and steelhead when both are juveniles, or smolts, waiting in freshwater rivers for their time to head to the ocean, the suit says.
"It's happening in virtually every river system in Puget Sound," said Ramon Vanden Brulle of Washington Trout, a Duvall-based conservation group.
"This could be a very significant impediment to salmon recovery."
State officials said they would not comment on the lawsuit.
"What I can say is that our job is to be stewards of the resource, and we believe that we are being good stewards of the resource," said Lew Atkins, assistant director of Fish and Wildlife.
Department officials have said in the past that they are committed to changing hatchery procedures so the fish produced there are not harming the legally protected wild fish, which spawn naturally.
The Portland-based Native Fish Society has amassed dozens of scientific studies showing how hatchery-produced fish harm wild fish stocks, including competing for food and space. And Fish and Wildlife officials have acknowledged that "predation on wild fish by hatchery fish may also negatively affect wild fish populations."
"It's acknowledged by everybody that this is occurring," Vanden Brulle said.
The disappearance of wild salmon concerns scientists because fish in each river are genetically distinct. This is how the fish have managed to survive in environments as starkly different as the steep, cold streams of the Olympic Peninsula rain forest and the flat Snake River running through Eastern Washington desert.
Wiping out whole fish stocks could eventually leave some rivers without wild salmon, scientists fear.
Hatchery fish are much less genetically varied than their wild counterparts, in part because relatively few hatchery fish are used to produce the eggs and sperm needed to launch a new class of fish each year.
State officials were supposed to tell the National Marine Fisheries Service in January 2001 how they planned to change hatcheries to help protect the wild salmon from the state's fish hatchery system, which is the world's largest. But those plans have not been completed.
The suit by the conservation groups aims to force the state to get moving.
It cites, among other studies, one on California's Feather River showing that 532,000 hatchery-produced fish ate more than 7.5 million young chinook -- an average of about 14 chinook eaten by each hatchery fish.
If each of the more than 5 million hatchery-produced fish to be released this spring ate just one young chinook, that would represent a major chunk of the young chinook population, the conservation groups argue.
If a judge ordered the state not to release the hatchery-produced fish, it would virtually wipe out the coho and steelhead that anglers would be counting on for their recreation in some future years, because they represent the majority of fish caught.
Sean Nixon, a sports fisherman and former officer in Puget Sound Anglers, said halting the release would be counterproductive.
Hatcheries have been marking fish produced there by clipping off an unnecessary fin, allowing fishers to throw back wild fish that still have the fin.
To be convinced of the suit's merit, "I'd really want to see the statistics -- how many smolts are actually being impacted," Nixon said.
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