Congress on Track to Approve Catastrophic Investment in Northwest Hatcheries, Undermining Wild Salmon Recovery

Congress on Track to Approve Catastrophic Investment in Northwest Hatcheries, Undermining Wild Salmon Recovery

Media Contact: Kurt Beardslee, Executive Director, 206-310-9301, [email protected]

NOVEMBER 31, 2021— Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives released text of the draft reconciliation bill revealing Congress is on track to make the largest investment in northwest hatchery infrastructure on record that could cause irreparable damage to wild fish populations and to endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

The proposed $400 million-dollar investment in hatcheries is being labeled and heralded as an important part of a larger package to restore and conserve Pacific wild salmon and steelhead. However, hatcheries have long been recognized as one of the four primary threats contributing to the precipitous decline of wild fish populations throughout the northwest.

“At a time when wild salmon, steelhead, and Southern Resident killer whales are teetering on the edge of extinction it is uplifting to see Congress promise the single largest investment in history in salmon ecosystem restoration and climate resiliency projects through the reconciliation and infrastructure bills,” says Kurt Beardslee, Executive Director of Wild Fish Conservancy. “For the same reason, it is a shame that Congress is directly undermining the impact of these vital investments by increasing the capacity of hatcheries that will impede recovery and further harm wild salmon and steelhead.”

This multi-million-dollar investment in hatcheries is occurring at time when resource managers are stripping science-based policies that Congress put in place to protect wild salmon and steelhead from the adverse impacts of hatcheries. This trend has been most obvious in Washington state which operates the largest hatchery program in the world. Earlier this month, Wild Fish Conservancy filed suit to challenge Washington state resource managers for repeatedly ignoring requirements of state environmental law when completely rewriting statewide hatchery policy in a manner that abandons the congressional commitments to achieving sound science-based hatchery reform. This included removing science-based guidelines and principles, developed by the congressionally appointed scientists, without any public review or environmental justification and against the warnings of Washington state’s own fisheries scientists in their 2020 report ‘A review of hatchery reform science in Washington State’.

This report, ironically intended to guide development of the new hatchery policy, found that “hatcheries have potential for large magnitude ecological impacts on natural populations that are not well understood, not typically evaluated and not measured” and that “…a focus on efficiency and maximizing abundance prevents widespread implementation of risk reduction measures” in Washington’s hatchery program. The authors also warn large-scale hatchery production “can magnify the political pressure to take advantage of abundant hatchery runs at the expense of natural populations.”

“Resource managers don’t deny hatcheries cause serious harm to wild fish but continue to rationalize that over time hatchery management is consistently improving to eliminate or mitigate that harm,” says Beardslee. “However, what we see in practice is quite the opposite. As our understanding of the harm hatcheries cause improves, hatchery policies directing management are being weakened to prioritize maintenance of the status quo over the protection of wild salmon and steelhead.”

Congress’ proposed significant investment in northwest hatcheries will support massive expansions in salmon hatchery production at facilities throughout Washington, purportedly to feed ailing Southern Resident killer whales, but touted by powerful commercial and recreational interests. These colossal increases in hatchery fish have only been made possible by neutralizing the science-based thresholds in the state’s previous hatchery reform policy.

More concerning still, the state refused to conduct any environmental review of these massive increases that are already underway. This includes evaluation of whether or not the Southern Residents will in fact prey on these hatchery fish (which are much smaller than their preferred prey), if the program could provide any benefits in the timeframe necessary to recover the rapidly declining orca population (scientists predict it could take 5-10 years before the hatchery fish would even be available to the whales), and if increasing hatchery production at these levels could exacerbate and further harm the wild populations of salmon that will sustain Southern Resident killer whales well into the future.

State and federal actions to increase hatchery production as a recovery strategy for Southern Resident killer whales has been widely criticized by the public, including in a petition signed by over half a million people calling on U.S. elected officials to stop investing taxpayer dollars in failed solutions that do not reflect best available science.

Massive hatchery increases are also being used to maintain and justify unsustainable salmon harvest in ocean fisheries. Last month, Seattle’s federal Court found the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) violated bedrock environmental laws when they relied on uncertain future mitigation— increases in northwest hatchery production—to authorize harvest the agency acknowledges is contributing to the decline of federally protected Southern Resident killer whales and wild Chinook salmon. The Court ruled the agency illegally ignored requirements to conduct environmental review of the proposed mitigation and that NOAA “fails to specify how the funds will be spent, how many additional fish could be produced, where fish would be released, or when, where, or how many salmon could be made available to SRKW or to aid recovery of Chinook salmon.”

“Our politicians have deliberately removed science-based policies that protect wild salmon and steelhead from the impacts of hatcheries. Without these protections, our government agencies are moving forward with massive increases in hatchery production that will only amplify those impacts. Worst of all, these decisions are being made without any environmental scrutiny and against the warnings of independent and government scientists trying to alert us of the likely consequences of these decisions,” says Beardslee. “With those odds, it’s hard to celebrate Congress’s $400 million hatchery blunder.”

Without a doubt the Pacific Northwest’s wild salmon, steelhead, and Southern Resident orcas are at a tipping point. Every dollar allocated to this crisis is precious and the actions we take today will determine the future for these iconic species on the brink of extinction. The question is what compass will we choose to follow in the name of recovery. Will we be guided by science in the direction of solutions with the greatest chance of success? Or will we continue to allow politics to lead us further down a path where we risk stealing opportunity from future generations who won’t even know what we took from them.

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