OLYMPIA, WA – Today, Wild Fish Conservancy provided the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) 60 days notice of our intent to file suit for violations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) resulting from its unpermitted operation of a new summer steelhead hatchery program in the Skykomish River. Throughout 2019 and 2020, WDFW has been capturing and killing wild summer steelhead for this new hatchery program without the required federal review and approval of a Hatchery Genetic Management Plan (HGMP); federally-approved operational plans required for all hatcheries that affect threatened or endangered species.
Steelhead, the state fish of Washington, have become so rare that they were protected under the ESA in 2007. They have been driven close to extinction by several factors including harmful hatchery practices. Given the cultural and ecological importance of Puget Sound steelhead to the state of Washington and the Pacific Northwest at-large, legal action is necessary in order to address the ongoing harm being done to this cherished species, and to give Puget Sound steelhead a meaningful chance at recovery.
“There is no evidence that this type of hatchery program has ever helped to save wild steelhead, but there is plenty of evidence to show the harm hatcheries have caused them. Most of all, there’s overwhelming evidence to prove what WDFW is doing is illegal”, said Kurt Beardslee, Executive Director of the Wild Fish Conservancy.
“Wild summer-run steelhead populations represent a unique life history that provides important resiliency to the survival of the species in the face of climate change. They are few in number and warrant the reasonable protection afforded to them by the ESA due to their unique and significant contribution to the diversity of the Puget Sound steelhead population as a whole”, says Beardslee.
Since October 2019, WDFW has prevented at least 52 wild summer steelhead from reproducing naturally in the Skykomish River. These fish were captured in the South Fork Skykomish River near Index, Washington, and transported by truck to the Reiter Ponds Hatchery Facility. There, the steelhead were held in captivity for weeks to months before WDFW removed their eggs and sperm to initiate a new summer steelhead hatchery program; in the process killing at least 30 wild summer steelhead, many of which were likely protected under the ESA. The Department of Fish and Wildlife is currently holding 36 adult wild summer steelhead in the Reiter Ponds facility, with the intent to take their eggs and sperm in the coming months.
According to the ESA, the actions WDFW has taken to initiate this new hatchery steelhead program require a federally-approved permit that describes the proposed hatchery program in detail, including a justification of the need for the program, details on the program risks to and negative effects on wild fish that are protected under the ESA, and the measures that will be taken to protect ESA-listed fish from hatchery impacts. Before this new hatchery program can receive the necessary authorization to proceed in compliance with the ESA, the HGMP must be reviewed, revised if necessary, and approved by the federal government. Subsequent review and approval is then required under the National Environmental Policy Act and the State Environmental Policy Act. As yet, none of this has occurred for WDFW’s new hatchery program in the Skykomish River which began mining the depressed wild steelhead population in 2019.
The Wild Fish Conservancy intends to file suit for violations of Section 9 of the ESA, which prohibits the take of endangered and threatened species. In today’s notice letter, the organization encourages WDFW to reach out before the expiration of the 60-day period to discuss how to timely eliminate the ongoing threat to ESA-listed Puget Sound steelhead posed by this new, unpermitted hatchery program.
“These federal and state environmental laws were intentionally designed to ensure policies and projects with the potential to further harm our most fragile species receive the consideration and analysis required”, says Kurt Beardslee. “WDFW’s decision to fundamentally bypass critical environmental review is simply reckless and shows a clear disregard for the Endangered Species Act. We have grave concerns over WDFW’s breach of public trust.”
Over the past thirty years, Puget Sound steelhead have declined at an alarming rate, to the point where their recent abundance is just 3% of what it was in 1900. This steep decline led to their listing as ‘threatened’ under the ESA in 2007. Unfortunately, abundance has continued to decline since the 2007 listing. Only five wild summer-run steelhead populations are believed to exist in Puget Sound at present and they are each at the lowest population levels ever recorded.
Among other impacts, Wild Fish Conservancy asserts that WDFW’s new, unpermitted summer steelhead hatchery program is directly harming Puget Sound steelhead through its capture, retention, and artificial spawning of wild steelhead. If the program releases hatchery steelhead into the wild, it will further harm Puget Sound steelhead through genetic introgression, ecological interactions such as competition and predation, and hooking and capture impacts from catch and release recreational fisheries.
“WDFW knowingly started a new hatchery program without the technical review, permitting, and public engagement that’s required by the Endangered Species Act and other laws”, said Kurt Beardslee. “It’s simply unacceptable. WDFW’s Fish Program must stop breaching the public trust and acting as though they are above the law.”
Wild Fish Conservancy is a nonprofit conservation ecology organization headquartered in Washington State and dedicated to preserving, protecting and restoring the northwest’s wild fish and the ecosystems they depend on, through science, education, and advocacy. WFC promotes technically and socially responsible habitat, hatchery and harvest management to better sustain the region’s wild-fish heritage.
Visit wildfishconservancy.org for more information.
Wild Fish Conservancy is represented in this matter by Kampmeier & Knutsen, PLLC, of Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington.
Relevant WDFW documents:
***Continued population declines since the federal listing prompted WDFW to write a “Steelhead At Risk Report”, which recommends improved monitoring of hatchery steelhead programs to ensure compliance with Hatchery Genetic Management Plans.
PHOTO: Hatchery and wild steelhead in the North Fork Skykomish River, Russ Rickets