Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
The Bonneville Dam 40 miles east of Portland spans the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, and is one of more than 60 dams in the Columbia River watershed that has had a negative impact on salmonid populations of the basin.

Columbia River Tribal Nations Condemn Lawsuit That Would Cut Funding to Fish Hatcheries

Terri Hansen

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) is harshly criticizing a lawsuit filed on March 31 on behalf of a fish conservation group that would cut funding for fish hatchery programs in the Columbia River Basin.

The Wild Fish Conservancy, in suing the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Department of Commerce, argues that the agencies are violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by funding hatchery programs without considering their adverse effects on fish species protected under the federal law.

The lawsuit seeks to halt funding for hatchery programs that are restoring salmon lost to tribal fishing nations due to the construction and operation of Columbia River dams, the CRITFC noted in a statement. The Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla, and Nez Perce nations called the group’s action a “misguided attack” that disregards constitutionally protected promises made by the United States to the tribes to replace fish runs that were damaged by the federal hydroelectric dams.

The conservation group said hatchery programs harm threatened and endangered salmon, steelhead and bull trout.

“We are investing millions of state and federal dollars every year on salmon recovery, and at the same time spending millions of public dollars on hatchery programs that are compromising that investment,” Wild Fish Conservancy Executive Director Kurt Beardslee said in a statement.

But CRITFC officials said that is erroneous.

“The lawsuit is based on the flawed logic that hatcheries caused the decline of wild salmon abundance and wrongly asserts that simply closing hatcheries will increase wild salmon abundance,” CRITFC Chairman Jeremy Wolf said in the commission’s statement. “In the tribes’ experience, that path only leads to fewer fish in the rivers and does virtually nothing to improve the condition of natural runs.”

A recent study in Oregon, published in the journal Nature Communications in February, found DNA evidence that salmon hatcheries cause substantial, rapid genetic changes to steelhead trout. NMFS Chief of Hatchery and Inland Fisheries Rob Jones addressed those concerns in a letter to the Wild Fish Conservancy prior to the lawsuit that said his agency expected to complete a biological opinion by July 2016, in advance of the August 2016 hatchery program funding.

The funding is authorized under a federal law known as the Mitchell Act that also pays for scientific research, hatchery reforms, and the monitoring of fisheries and fish production. Jones also advised the Wild Fish Conservancy that NMFS had terminated four steelhead hatchery programs in 2014 owing to their likelihood of adversely affecting wild steelhead.

Wolf called lawsuits like these “expensive distractions from the important work of salmon recovery” and said such distractions put the livelihoods of tribal and non-tribal fishing communities alike at risk. If the conservation group prevails, it will harm such projects as the Yakama Nation’s program to sustain their ancient tribal fishery on the Klickitat River in Washington State, Wolf said.

“Columbia Basin salmon were not decimated because of hatcheries. The Columbia Basin has hatcheries because natural fish were decimated,” Wolf said in the CRITFC statement. “The Fish Conservancy litigation won’t do anything to help the fish, but it will certainly hurt the most vulnerable fishing community: tribal members who rely on these programs. Litigation like this perpetuates the myth that all hatchery fish are bad and cannot be used in recovery. We should not allow a tiny special interest group with a narrow agenda to distract the rest of us from the big picture of refining hatchery practices and working together to rebuild abundance.”

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