Greens Say Hatchery Threatens Native Fish

     EUREKA, Calif. (CN) – Steelhead trout from a Northern California fish hatchery prey upon and interbreed with threatened native fish, in violation of the Endangered Species Act, an environmental group claims in court.
     The Environmental Protection Information Center sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and five top officers of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in Federal Court. It claims the defendants hatch and release the trout without proper clearance, to stock streams and lakes for recreational fishing.
     The nonprofit group claims that the hatchery fish “compete with, prey upon, or interbreed with native wild coho and Chinook salmon and wild steelhead trout that are listed as threatened with extinction under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The hatchery steelhead trout cause a ‘take’ of wild salmon and steelhead that is illegal in the absence of authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).”
     The environmentalists claim Fish and Wildlife failed to consult with the NMFS about the effects of financing the hatchery, and that its actions “jeopardize the continued existence of wild salmon and steelhead and adversely modify their critical habitat. U.S. Fish and Wildlife is also liable under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for failing to complete the decision-making process under NEPA to consider and disclose the environmental effects of its financing of the Mad River and other hatcheries.”
     The hatchery, on the west bank of the Mad River in Humboldt County, about 12 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean, began operations in 1971 and produced Chinook and coho salmon until 2000, after the species were listed under the ESA.
     The hatchery still produces steelhead and rainbow trout to stock inland waters. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife operates the hatchery with assistance from the nonprofit group Friends of the Mad River Hatchery.
     The steelhead trout stock was developed during the 1970s from nonindigenous broodstock from Washington and California. The stock is distinct from wild steelhead stock in the Mad River, and is not protected under the Endangered Species Act.
     California Fish and Wildlife collects wild steelhead trout using a fish ladder from the Mad River to a fish trap next to the hatchery’s spawning facility. CDFW “does not have authorization from NMFS for the take of wild steelhead trout for use as broodstock. California Fish and Wildlife does not have authorization from NMFS for the inadvertent collection of Wild Chinook or coho salmon, or steelhead trout, incidental to collecting broodstock,” according to the complaint.
     California Fish and Wildlife releases around 203,000 juvenile steelhead trout from rearing ponds each year, which “significantly harms wild Chinook and coho salmon, and wild steelhead trout, in the Mad River and its tributaries,” the complaint states. “Hatchery steelhead trout prey on wild juvenile salmon and steelhead trout. Hatchery steelhead trout compete with wild Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout for food, rearing habitat and spawning areas. Hatchery steelhead trout prey on wild Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout. Hatchery steelhead trout introduce and transmit disease to wild Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout. California Fish and Wildlife does not have authorization or approval from NMFS to conduct activities that either directly or indirectly takes these wild fish listed under the ESA.”
     The environmentalist claim the release of hatchery trout has harmful genetic effects on wild steelhead trout when the species interbreed.
     “Genetic introgression – the transfer of genetics from stray hatchery fish to wild populations – alters the genetic composition, phenotypic traits, and behavior of wild steelhead trout. Ultimately, this introgression lowers the fitness and genetic variability of wild steelhead trout populations, decreasing productivity and abundance. California Fish and Wildlife does not have authorization from NMFS for harm to wild steelhead trout caused by genetic introgression,” according to the complaint.
     The plaintiffs claim the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service abused its discretion, under a program to manage and restore species for sport fishing, to give more than $1.7 million to operate the hatchery from 2009 to 2014.
     It claims that U.S. Fish and Wildlife operates the hatchery even though it has not completed its decision-making process under NEPA, to evaluate whether it should continue to do so.
     The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the defendants violate the Endangered Species Act by allowing illegal takes of the fish, and that U.S. Fish and Wildlife violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to complete its decision-making process before funding the hatchery.
     They want California Fish and Wildlife enjoined from collecting wild trout to use as broodstock and from releasing hatchery trout without NMFS authorization, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife stopped from approving or disbursing funds for the hatchery without NMFS authorization or a final decision under NEPA that is approved by this court.
     They also seek attorney fees and costs under the ESA and any other relief the court deems necessary.
     The Environmental Protection Information Center is represented by Sharon Duggan of Oakland.

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