February 12, 2012
By John Larison
Wild Fish Conservancy, The Conservation Angler, the Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee, and the Wild Steelhead Coalition filed a lawsuit last week against the Olympic National Park, NOAA Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and representatives of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe in an effort to save the Elwha River's native steelhead, chinook salmon, and the killer whales in Puget Sound that depend upon these fish. The suit claims by operating a fish hatchery on the Elwha River, these groups are violating the Endangered Species Act.
The US government spent $325 million to remove the (damn) dam on the Elwha, creating an unprecedented chance to restore native salmon populations that had never been tainted by hatchery fish genetics. The dam, while separating anadromous fish from their ocean, ensured no hatchery salmon made it to the upriver spawning grounds. Now with the dam gone, anadromous fish can once again migrate to the sea, and all evidence suggests the river should expect impressive returns of purely wild salmon in the coming years.
Nonetheless, the government agencies charged with recovering wild salmon in the Elwha have bowed to the Klallam Tribe's desire to build a massive hatchery in the basin that will fill the river with various salmon species, including Chamber's Creek steelhead--an inbred stock selected because it survives well in cement holding tanks. The agencies call the hatchery a "recovery tool," but all science on the matter suggests otherwise.
Though the tribe too wants wild salmon to thrive, they want to protect their traditions of harvesting salmon. They see the hatchery as an insurance policy; in case the wild fish are slow to recovery, the tribe members will still have fish to kill. Unfortunately, that "insurance policy" may become the very factor that hamstrings wild fish recovery.
The conservation groups are represented by Smith and Lowney, PLLC, of Seattle. A response is expected shortly.