SEATTLE -- The removal of two dams on the Elwha River in Washington state is expected to open miles of river for thousands of wild salmon and steelhead, but wild-fish advocates say that recovery can only be fully realized if hatchery fish aren't allowed in the river.
Several wild-fish advocates plan to sue federal and state agencies over a controversial fish hatchery built as part of the $325 million Elwha River restoration project. They say the hatchery threatens the recovery of salmon and other imperiled fish, and that the process did not go through proper review.
The groups filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue last week, naming the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries Service, the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and others. The groups planning to sue are Wild Fish Conservancy, the Wild Steelhead Coalition and The Conservation Angler, all based in Washington state, along with the Montana-based Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee.
Last week marked a milestone in the dam removal project, as an excavator began chipping away at the top of Glines Canyon Dam. Over the weekend, hundreds of people including U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar gathered at the Elwha Dam to celebrate the largest dam removal project in the U.S. The project is expected to last three years and eventually restore the river to its wild state and restore salmon.
"This is the world's largest river restoration project, and the wild salmon deserve a chance to come back to the Elwha without having to compete with millions of hatchery fish," said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy. "The habitat is excellent and the wild fish would colonize it quickly if left alone."
Will Stelle, northwest regional director for NOAA Fisheries, told the Seattle Times (http://bit.ly/oh6ZBO ) the hatchery program has been open to review and will remain so.
"Do we need the lawyers and litigation in order to compel a continued substantial engagement?" Stelle said. "That is going to happen anyway and you can count on it."
The $16 million hatchery near Port Angeles, Wash., was completed in May. The facility will produce chum, coho and pink salmon, as well as steelhead.
It was built for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe because taking out the dams will render the tribe's old hatchery inoperable, the newspaper reported. For years, the tribe has stocked the river with nonnative steelhead to provide fishing opportunities for tribal members.
Without stocking nonnative fish, the tribe may not have anything to catch once a five-year fishing moratorium has ended, Robert Elofson, the tribe's river restoration manager, told the Times. That's because wild runs may still be too fragile, he said.
NOAA's Stelle said the tribe must be assured an exercise of tribal-fishing rights over the next 10 years while fish runs are still diminished, partly because the river will be carrying elevated levels of sediment previously trapped behind the dams.
The wild-fish groups say the fish hatchery plan that the agencies violates a federal endangered-species law by harming Puget Sound Chinook salmon, steelhead, and bull trout without the proper authorization.
Several scientists have opposed the practice of stocking nonnative steelhead in the river, calling it an unnecessary risk to the recovery of wild fish, the Times reported. Scientists on record opposing the practice include the lead fish biologist for the Olympic National Park, the habitat biologist for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and scientists from NOAA's Fisheries Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the newspaper reported.