PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - Wild salmon in the Sandy River are being overwhelmed by more than 1.3 million hatchery-grown fish the state and federal governments release into the river every year, the Native Fish Society claims in Federal Court.
The Native Fish Society claims the Sandy River Hatchery releases the fish to benefit commercial fishing, rather than to conserve vulnerable Pacific Northwest salmon, and that hatchery fish expose wild fish to diseases and compete for resources.
The Oregon City-based environmental group claims the National Marine Fisheries Service and Oregon's Fish & Wildlife Department are crowding out wild coho salmon, Chinook salmon, and steelhead trout with hatchery fish, in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
The Sandy River is a 56-miles long tributary of the Columbia River, between Portland and Mount Hood.
The Sandy River Hatchery, which gets state and federal funds, is responsible for the dominance of captive-bred fish runs in the Sandy River watershed, the group says.
"Historically, the cold, pristine waters of this glacier-fed system sustained enormous populations of wild native steelhead and salmon. Runs of native fish to the Sandy River basin ranged as high as 15,000 coho, 20,000 winter steelhead, 10,000 fall Chinook and 8,000 to 10,000 spring Chinook," according to the complaint.
"The numbers of wild native fish in this system have declined significantly. Wild coho now average approximately 860 spawners annually, wild winter steelhead average approximately 975 spawners annually, and wild spring Chinook now average approximately 1,200 spawners annually. The runs of fish returning to the Sandy River basin are now dominated by artificially bred fish produced by the Hatchery."
Hatchery fish have devastated the native populations, the group says.
"Hatchery-bred fish occupy habitat needed for wild fish to survive and return to spawn, out-compete wild fish for food, attract predators, prey on smaller wild fish (both of the same species and of other species), transmit diseases, compete for spawning grounds and interbreed with wild fish, which reduces the genetic fitness of the wild fish for generations afterwards," the complaint states. (Parentheses in complaint.)
Oregon's Fish and Wildlife Department defines hatchery programs as either "harvest" or "conservation" programs. The Native Fish Society claims the Sandy Hatchery's harvest program hurts wild fish.
"Programs at the Hatchery are not conservation programs, but rather are harvest programs, used to mitigate loss of fishing and harvest opportunities due to loss of habitat and migration blockage resulting from the Columbia Basin hydropower system, and to augment fishing and harvest opportunities on the Sandy River," the complaint states.
"The goal of the Hatchery programs is to produce artificially bred fish that will contribute to commercial and sport fisheries in the Columbia River Basin and Sandy River. ...
"In no instance has a salmon hatchery restored a depressed wild population to the point where it is self-sustaining. There is little or no evidence that hatcheries have been effective over the long term at assisting in the recovery of wild populations."
The National Marine Fisheries Service continues to fund the hatchery despite evidence that it does not help restore wild populations, and the NMFS has not released proper environmental evaluations about the fisheries, the group claims.
Additionally, Oregon Fish & Wildlife drafted four Hatchery and Genetic Management Plans for the federal service to approve, but those plans do not account for restoration of the salmon and steelhead populations, according to the complaint.
The Native Fish Society claims the defendants violate the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act. It seeks an injunction to prevent the agencies from funding the hatchery without ensuring that it will not jeopardize vulnerable native fish populations.
The Native Fish Society is represented by David Becker, of Portland.