Notice of Intent given to sue over Columbia River hatchery programs

Wild Fish Conservancy and The Conservation Angler announced that they issued a 60-day Notice of Intent to sue federal, state, and local agencies for what they call “chronic and ongoing violations of the Endangered Species Act” (ESA).  

The notice, released by the groups, contends that the agencies are operating hatchery programs in the lower Columbia River Basin under the federal Mitchell Act and Select Area Fishery Enhancement (SAFE) programs without complying with provisions designed to prevent the extinction of wild salmon and to protect their ecosystems.

“Together, these programs are harming threatened and endangered Chinook, coho, and chum salmon, as well as steelhead and Southern Resident killer whales. These hatchery programs harm these species and their critical habitats through a variety of mechanisms, including facility effects, fish removal activities, genetic and ecological interactions, harvest, and monitoring and evaluation.”

Congress enacted the Mitchell Act in 1938 to mitigate adverse effects on salmon in the Columbia River Basin. National Marine Fisheries Service distributes funds appropriated under the Mitchell Act that Congress has allocated to hatchery programs.

The group states that in recent years, Mitchell Act funding has ranged between $15,000,000 and $22,000,000 annually, supporting roughly one-third of all hatchery production in the Columbia River.

A 2023 study evaluated the impact of the federal government’s total $9 billion dollar investment in hatchery production and restoration spending in the Columbia River over the past forty years. Despite the scale of the investment, the results showed no evidence of increased abundance of wild salmon or steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.”

“Federal agencies are obligated under section 7 of the ESA to “insure that any action authorized, funded, or carried out by such agency… is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of habitat that has been designated as critical for such species.”  In order to satisfy this requirement, federal agencies planning to fund or undertake an action that “may affect” ESA-listed species or their critical habitat are required to immediately consult with NMFS and/or the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to quantify the effects of the proposed action and their likely adverse impact on the listed species and their critical habitat.”

Wild Fish Conservancy sued the NMFS and the Department of Commerce in 2016 to force them to comply with the ESA when funding and authorizing Mitchell Act hatcheries. As a result of that litigation, NMFS was required to develop a Biological Opinion on Mitchell Act hatcheries setting limits to reduce harm to wild salmon and steelhead recovery.

The notice letter details how the groups say NMFS has failed to comply with key provisions and standards set by the agency on both the Mitchell Act and SAFE programs, including exceeding percentages of hatchery fish allowed on wild spawning grounds (one of the primary ways hatcheries harm endangered salmon populations). 

“Despite decades of science demonstrating the damaging effects of hatcheries on wild salmon, government at all levels are knowingly complacent with violating the law and causing the decline of wild salmon and steelhead throughout the Columbia River basin,” says Emma Helverson, Executive Director of Wild Fish Conservancy. “We’ve run out of time and options. These species represent an irreplaceable public heritage, and we’re taking every action to hold the government accountable for ending this chronic harm caused by Columbia River hatcheries before it’s too late.”

In addition, the groups allege that data demonstrates that local and state agencies in both Oregon and Washington are also failing to comply with many requirements intended to protect ESA-listed species under the Mitchell Act and SAFE programs.

“The ESA is the nation’s most important tool to protect biodiversity, and Congress provided a means under the ESA for the public to hold entities accountable for violating the Act. The data clearly shows that the Mitchell Act and SAFE hatchery programs are failing to comply with requirements to prevent the extinction of ESA-listed steelhead, chinook, coho, and chum salmon. We are filing this notice to hold the agencies accountable for these failures and to ensure that these species receive the ESA protections that they are afforded by law,” said David Moskowitz, Executive Director for The Conservation Angler.