The latest lawsuit over fish in the state claims hatchery-raised salmon and steelhead may impact already-diminished wild populations and the orca whales that eat them.
In the lawsuit filed this week in King County Superior Court, the nonprofits Wild Fish Conservancy and The Conservation Angler argue that the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has in recent years not adhered to State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) regulations when making decisions about hatcheries.
The nonprofits are asking that Fish and Wildlife be ordered to halt any changes underway at its hatcheries that were based on decisions the state agency has made since 2018, and that Fish and Wildlife be required to review those recent decisions.
In particular, the nonprofits want Fish and Wildlife to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) under SEPA for a hatchery plan adopted in January 2021. They also want to see the increase in hatchery chinook salmon production — promoted as a way to potentially help endangered Southern Resident orcas — invalidated.
The state's effort to increase chinook production by 50 million fish over 2018 numbers — which have included changes at the local Samish Hatchery — "could backfire and cause an even more rapid decline of both" chinook and orcas, according to the lawsuit.
"It was a big gamble, with the only certain payoff going to Washington's fishing industry, while the risks were borne by Washington's fish and wildlife," the lawsuit states. "Scientists now understand that hatcheries pose significant dangers to wild fish populations, and the likelihood that these dangers will materialize increases as hatchery production increases."
A primary problem with hatchery fish, according to the lawsuit, is that they lack genetic diversity that develops through natural selection in wild populations as fish forage for food, find shelter, evade predators and find mates. When hatchery fish and wild fish cross-spawn, the genetic traits of hatchery fish that are less likely to survive in the wild may be passed on to future generations.
According to the lawsuit, hatchery fish can also compete with wild fish for limited resources, attract predators that eat both hatchery and wild fish, spread disease, and lead to a higher number of wild fish caught accidentally when catch quotas are increased to match hatchery production levels.
A January 2020 Fish and Wildlife report listed the same factors as "risks" to be balanced with the benefits of hatchery production.
Hatcheries were established to supplement declining wild populations of fish. Fish and Wildlife operates many throughout the state that produce salmon, steelhead and other game fish, including two in Skagit County.
"Today, hatcheries provide the foundation for the state's popular recreational fisheries and the many jobs that depend on them," Fish and Wildlife's website states.
The lawsuit argues that hatcheries may hinder population growth among wild fish.
Documents produced by NOAA Fisheries and the Hatchery Reform Project echo those concerns and call for changes to limit the impacts of hatchery fish on wild salmon and steelhead populations.
The lawsuit states Fish and Wildlife was on its way to making such changes in 2009, but then abandoned those reforms in order to promote hatchery growth, including in an effort to help the region's orcas.
Salmon and steelhead have been the subject of many lawsuits in the state.
Wild Fish Conservancy is involved in a lawsuit being heard in the state Supreme Court over commercial fish farms in local waters and was behind a lawsuit that previously led to the closure of a Skagit River steelhead hatchery program.
Lawsuits brought by others include those pending over the fairness of tribal and recreational fishing shares and over the lack of fish passage at the Skagit River dams.