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WDFW and Wild Fish Conservancy settle lawsuit over 'early winter' hatchery steelhead releases

OLYMPIA - The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) announced today it has reached an agreement with the Wild Fish Conservancy that will stop litigation against the department over its Puget Sound hatchery programs for 2½ years and permit the release of hatchery steelhead this spring into the Skykomish River.

No early winter steelhead will be released into other Puget Sound rivers in 2014.

The agreement is reflected in a federal court consent decree signed by WDFW Director Phil Anderson and Conservancy Executive Director Kurt Beardslee. The decree is designed to settle a lawsuit filed by the Conservancy last month in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

In its March 31 complaint, the Duvall-based non-profit group claimed the department's Puget Sound hatchery steelhead programs violate the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) by impairing the recovery of wild steelhead, salmon, and bull trout. All three species are listed as "threatened" under the ESA.

While acknowledging that certain hatchery practices may pose risks to wild fish productivity and recovery, WDFW officials denied the Conservancy's claim and said the department has taken numerous steps based on current science to ensure its hatchery operations protect wild steelhead and other listed fish species.

The department's Hatchery Genetic Management Plans (HGMPs) are designed to ensure that all steelhead hatcheries support wild fish recovery, but those plans are still under review by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

"While I am disappointed the agreement does not allow for the release of more of the early winter hatchery steelhead we have on hand into Puget Sound rivers, I am gratified that we were able to reach agreement to release fish from our Skykomish hatchery in 2014 and support a popular recreational fishery," Anderson said.

He added that the most important element of the agreement is the 2½-year suspension of lawsuits initiated by the Conservancy over the department's Puget Sound hatchery programs. The suspension will allow the department to work with tribal fishery managers to resubmit HGMPs for other species raised in Puget Sound hatcheries for NMFS' review and approval.

The federal court agreement includes the following provisions:

WDFW may release up to 180,000 hatchery steelhead in 2014 and again in 2015 into the Skykomish River, which flows into the Snohomish River near Monroe.

The Conservancy will not sue WDFW over its Puget Sound hatchery programs during the next 2 ½ years, or until NMFS approves those programs, whichever comes first.

WDFW will refrain from planting early winter (Chambers Creek) hatchery steelhead into most rivers in the Puget Sound region until NMFS completes its review.

A 12-year research program will be established in the Skagit River, during which no early winter steelhead will be released into the watershed. In cooperation with the Conservancy, WDFW will work with tribes to evaluate and potentially implement a steelhead hatchery program in the Skagit River using native steelhead.

The department may release hatchery steelhead into other rivers around Puget Sound when NMFS approves the department's HGMPs. This provision will not apply to the Skagit River watershed, which will not receive early winter hatchery steelhead releases during the 12-year study period.

Early winter steelhead from WDFW hatcheries that cannot be released into Puget Sound-area rivers will be released into inland waters that have no connection to Puget Sound. The department will give the Conservancy 14 days' advance notice of those releases.

WDFW will pay the Conservancy $45,000 for litigation expenses.

Jim Scott, who heads the WDFW Fish Program, said that until the Conservancy filed the lawsuit, the department had planned to release about 900,000 juvenile steelhead this spring into several rivers that flow into Puget Sound. The settlement means that hatchery steelhead will continue to be released into the Skykomish, while the remaining steelhead will be used to enhance the state's inland trout fishing programs, he said.

When the lawsuit was filed, WDFW officials said the department was vulnerable to litigation because its hatchery steelhead operations had not been approved by NMFS following the ESA listing of Puget Sound steelhead in 2007. Scott said WDFW worked with tribes to revise and update its HGMPs for all Puget Sound steelhead hatcheries, and resubmitted them to NMFS earlier this year.

With the litigation settled, Scott said the department will work with tribal and federal officials on an aggressive schedule to complete the NMFS review.


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