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Elwha River Restoration

Elwha River Restoration Initiatives and Updates

Elwha River ONP 2

Background

On the Elwha we have an opportunity to restore wild salmon and steelhead to a pristine river unlike any remaining in our state. Before dam construction in 1910, the river supported robust populations of steelhead and five different species of salmon, including some of the largest chinook ever documented.

Given time and conservative harvest management, there is reason to believe that within a few decades we will see those magnificent fish return in similar numbers. Unfortunately, we are poised to squander what would otherwise be a tremendous opportunity.

Each year, Washington state releases hundreds of millions of juvenile salmon and steelhead from hatcheries to supplement sport and commercial fisheries. These releases are known to be harmful to wild stocks: interbreeding with wild fish, altering their genetic makeup and reducing the survival of their offspring; competing for space and resources; introducing disease; attracting predators; encouraging overfishing, to cite just a few deleterious impacts. Countless researchers have confirmed that hatchery programs are incompatible with healthy, abundant wild salmon and steelhead.

The stated goal of the Elwha River dam removal is to restore healthy populations of wild salmon and steelhead to the watershed. Yet despite an overwhelming body of evidence confirming the harmful impacts of hatcheries, state, federal and tribal governments have agreed upon a plan that relies heavily on hatchery supplementation. Faced with the single greatest opportunity to restore wild salmon, they've opted for business as usual, perpetuating a failing paradigm of replacing native fish with a man-made alternative.

"This is the world's largest river-restoration program and it should reflect the world's best science. We think the hatchery is threatening the recovery of wild fish and we really don't think it went through the proper review process." - Kurt Beardslee, Executive Director, Wild Fish Conservancy

...Dylan Tomine, an ambassador for the clothing company Patagonia, which champions dam removal, said wild fish in the Northwest evolved to cope with elevated sediment levels brought by everything from landslides to volcanoes. "My wish," Tomine said, "is that we could have the patience and faith to let Mother Nature do what she has always done."

Action Taken

Wild Fish Conservancy, the Conservation Angler, the Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee, and the Wild Steelhead Coalition filed suit on February 9, 2012, against the Olympic National Park, NOAA Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and representatives of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe (LEKT) for ignoring best available science and violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The suit alleges that by permitting, funding, and operating the Elwha Hatchery, the defendants threaten the recovery of Chinook salmon, native steelhead, and killer whales.  State and federal agency scientists, along with the independent Hatchery Scientific Review Group (HSRG), pointed out that the current plan gives no measurable goals for wild fish recovery, provides no timetable for ceasing the hatchery production, and that wild fish recovery is going to be hampered by the implementation of the Elwha hatchery plan.

On February 27, 2012, an agreement was reached with the LEKT in that WFC and its partners agreed not to seek a preliminary injunction against the LEKT's planned 2012 release of non-native, hatchery-raised "Chambers Creek" steelhead, and the LEKT agreed not to release those steelhead that year.  Unfortunately, further settlement efforts were unsuccessful.  Worse, the federal government has since approved a Biological Opinion under the Endangered Species Act and “Finding Of No Significant Impact” under the National Environmental Policy Act in an attempt to comply with the law, but, in our opinion, without appropriately addressing the scientific and legal flaws of their hatchery-based “recovery” plan.  Nonetheless, the federal judge hearing the case recently dismissed one of our claims as moot.

We plan to appeal the federal judge’s decision and we have filed supplemental complaints to the Court declaring that the Biological Opinion does not comply with the Endangered Species Act and that a full environmental impact statement should have been prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act that considers alternatives to the hatchery-based plan. The district court must hear those claims before the matter can be appealed to the Ninth District Court of Appeals.

On January 23, 2014, WFC and our co-plaintiffs asked the US District Court for Western Washington for a preliminary injunction to halt planned releases of hatchery coho salmon and steelhead into the Elwha River and planned collection of returning adult steelhead for hatchery broodstock until the Court has an opportunity to determine whether the releases comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The motion asks the Court to stop planned releases of hatchery coho salmon and steelhead and stop the planned taking of threatened adult steelhead for use as hatchery broodstock. These planned hatchery activities threaten harm both to individual listed steelhead, Chinook, and bull trout in the Elwha River and to the listed Puget Sound populations of which they are members. These activities and the hatchery programs lack the necessary ESA take coverage because NOAA Fisheries’ approval documents are unlawful, and because the Elwha Defendants cannot comply with the terms and conditions of those approval documents.

A revised “Environmental Assessment” was recently released by the agencies (June 2014), with a public comment period.  Wild Fish Conservancy, the Conservation Angler, the Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee, and the Wild Steelhead Coalition also submitted comments on the Assessment on July 17, 2014.

Our goal remains that the recovery plan should be focused on naturally sustainable wild fish, not hatchery fish, and that such a plan should be in place when we have a free-running Elwha.

Press Releases

 

Media Coverage

 

Additional Information

 

Video

Elwha River Science Symposium - September 15, 2011

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