The state and federal governments’ annual release of hundreds of thousands of hatchery-raised spring chinook salmon into the McKenzie River is jeopardizing the recovery of the river’s dwindling wild salmon runs and must be dramatically curtailed, two flyfishing advocacy groups say in a federal lawsuit filed this week.
McKenzie Flyfishers and the Steamboaters allege in the suit that the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are violating the federal Endangered Species Act by not taking measures to prevent the crossbreeding of wild and hatchery spring chinook salmon in the McKenzie River.
The resulting back-and-forth movement of genes between the two groups of fish — a process known as introgression — is spawning salmon less capable of surviving and reproducing in the wild and potentially dooming to extinction the last major stronghold of wild spring chinook salmon in the upper Willamette River basin, the plaintiffs allege.
Only about 1,000 wild adult salmon returned to the river’s natural spawning grounds above Leaburg Dam last year, compared to an average of about 5,000 fish a decade ago, said the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Eugene.
“Just look at those gross numbers and you say, ‘We can’t wait any longer to require the agencies to agree and require them to do something to save these fish or they’ll be gone,’ ” said Bruce Anderson, president-elect of McKenzie Flyfishers.
The salmon received federal protection in 1999.
In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the arm of the federal government tasked with protecting fish and other marine life, listed a number of measures to ensure that the dams and reservoirs, hatcheries and other manmade improvements along the Willamette River don’t endanger the survival and recovery of four federally protected fish species, including the wild spring chinook salmon.
One of those projects was construction of a sorting center at the Leaburg Dam to ensure salmon raised at and released from the McKenzie Hatchery two miles downstream from the dam couldn’t reach the natural spawning grounds of the wild salmon upstream from the dam. The number of hatchery fish “straying” into the natural spawning grounds of the wild salmon continues to grow, the lawsuit said.
Salmon — both wild and hatchery-bred — can move upstream and downstream past the dam with the help of ladders, screens and other structures at the dam. Salmon are born in a freshwater location, migrate downstream to the Pacific Ocean and later return to the approximate area where they were spawned.
The state Fish and Wildlife Department operates the hatchery, and the corps pays for a portion of its operating costs. The hatchery program was initially started by government agencies as a way to compensate for the harm that dams have done to wild salmon runs.
The lawsuit contends the corps has determined that construction of a sorting system is unfeasible.
The lawsuit also alleges that the corps, national fisheries service and state wildlife agency can’t agree on a plan to prevent the crossbreeding of hatchery and wild spring chinook even as the hundreds of thousands of salmon the hatchery releases each year are competing with the declining population of wild salmon.
Both the state and federal agencies said they don’t comment on pending litigation. The corps referred a reporter to the U.S. Department of Justice, which declined comment.
The lawsuit requests that a federal judge declare that the agencies are violating the Endangered Species Act and order a curtailment in the annual release of hatchery salmon to give wild salmon a fighting chance to recover.
The plaintiffs are seeking to reduce the annual release to 100,000 salmon fry, from 800,000, said Dave Thomas, a biologist and McKenzie Flyfishers’ board member.
“For years, we’ve been trying to get the agencies to investigate the hatchery’s impacts on the dwindling wild chinook population and to comply with the law, but we’ve been ignored,” he said. “We do not seek to shut down the hatchery, but only that it stop harming recovery of this magnificent wild fish.”
The plaintiffs said the lawsuit would have no effect on rainbow trout and steelhead that the state releases from a separate hatchery next to the Leaburg Dam.
No court dates have been set. The plaintiffs are represented by the Eugene-based Western Environmental Law Center.