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Elwha River, Dam Removal, Hatchery and Wild Fish...headed to Court!

This is going to be an interesting year for the Elwha River and what should be one of the most prominent live experiments in natural recovery of wild fish ever. Many of you likely know this already but if not, a hatchery is planned to allow for stocking of fish throughout much of the Elwha River, even above where fish have been cut-off from migration for decades. In the paper today a piece on the impending litigious battle brewing over this controversial decision.

By Lynda V. Mapes of the Seattle Times

Just as dam removal gets under way on the Elwha River, wild-fish advocates say a hatchery built as part of the restoration threatens the recovery effort, and they have filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue.

The notice says that various agencies did not seek adequate consultation before deciding in a 2008 fish-recovery plan to use a new $16 million hatchery to "jump-start" recovery of wild fish in the Elwha River.

The groups say hatchery fish reduce the vigor and survival of fragile runs of native fish, and that the decision to plant nonnative Chambers Creek winter steelhead in the river poses particular risk. The filers are far from alone in their concern: Scientists from every agency that has weighed in on the question of stocking nonnative steelhead in the river have opposed it as an unreasonable and unnecessary risk to wild-fish recovery.

The lead fish biologist for Olympic National Park, the habitat biologist for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are all on record opposing the practice.

"This is the world's largest river-restoration program and it should reflect the world's best science," said Kurt Beardslee, head of the Wild Fish Conservancy, one of the groups involved. "We think the hatchery is threatening the recovery of wild fish and we really don't think it went through the proper review process."

Also joining in the action are the Wild Steelhead Coalition, The Conservation Angler and Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee. The recipients were the Olympic National Park, the NOAA Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The notice is intended to spur negotiations between the parties to work out their differences within 60 days. If that is not successful, a lawsuit could be filed.

The hatchery was built for the tribe as part of the $325 million Elwha restoration program because taking out the dams will render the tribe's old hatchery inoperable. The tribe has for years stocked the river with nonnative steelhead to provide a fishing opportunity for tribal members.

Native steelhead in the river are listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, as are chinook, bull trout and eulachon. Robert Elofson, river-restoration manager for the tribe, notes that without stocking nonnative fish, the tribe might not have anything to catch at the end of a five-year fishing moratorium, because wild runs will still be too fragile.

But critics warn that the hatchery will prevent recovery from ever taking off.

Will Stelle, northwest regional director of NOAA Fisheries, said the hatchery program has been open to review and will remain so, as details for the stocking program — and dialing it back — are developed.

"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 tribe must be assured an exercise of tribal-fishing rights over the next 10 years while fish runs are still diminished, in part because the river will be carrying elevated levels of sediment long trapped behind the dams, Stelle said.

The hatchery has been sharply controversial, including during a science symposium this week in Port Angeles as part of the commemoration of dam removal.

At a gathering Thursday night, Dylan Tomine, an ambassador for the clothing company Patagonia, which champions dam removal, said wild fish in the Northwest evolved to cope with elevated sediment levels brought by everything from landslides to volcanoes.

"My wish," Tomine said, "is that we could have the patience and faith to let Mother Nature do what she has always done."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736

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