9th Circuit OKs Stocking Plan for Washington State River

(CN) – Federal plans to stock a river running through Olympic National Park in Washington state with hatchery fish will have no significant impact on native fish or wild salmon recovery, the Ninth Circuit has ruled.

The risks posed by the program are “minimal,” a three-judge panel ruled in an unpublished, unsigned opinion April 18 – affirming a lower court’s decision to allow the hatchery release.

Environmental groups sued the government and tribal agencies in 2012 over a plan to repopulate the Elwha River with hatchery fish, arguing it would introduce harmful non-native species and involve large-scale production intended for commercial harvest, not conservation.

The Elwha River, on the Olympic Peninsula, flows 45 miles from its headlands in the Olympic Range into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Most of it is in Olympic National Park. It is one of few rivers in the Northwest that contains all five species of Pacific salmon, and also contains four anadromous trout species. Anadromous fish, such as salmon, spend most of their life in seawater, but migrate to fresh water to breed.

Congress authorized the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in 1992 under the Elwha Act, which mandates the full restoration of the Elwha River ecosystem and native fisheries including steelhead and salmon.

The Elwha dam removal started in 2011 and was completed in 2014.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle ruled – and the Ninth Circuit panel agreed – that the National Marine Fisheries Service properly approved the use of hatcheries operated by Washington state and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to restore the fish population after dam removal.

The service’s decision to use an environmental assessment instead of a more rigorous environmental impact statement before approving the hatchery program was acceptable because the agency previously endorsed the hatcheries in 1996 after a performing an impact statement, the panel found.

“The subsequent environmental assessment reasonably concluded, after thorough analysis, that the risks posed by the hatchery programs were minimal and that approving the programs would have no significant impact on the environment,” according to the opinion.

The service issued a revised assessment and biological opinion after the initial lawsuit was filed that further addresses environmentalists’ concerns about funding of the hatchery program and the tribe’s taking of fish without authorization, the opinion said.

Olympic National Park, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have agreed to ban all fishing on the Elwha until at least June 1, 2019, to help recovery.