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Lawsuit could derail state's Puget Sound hatchery steelhead program

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say that among the consequences of the federal lawsuit filed Monday, March 31 are the possibility that 900,000 hatchery steelhead might not be released this spring into Puget Sound rivers.

The suit brought by the Duvall-based Wild Fish Conservancy in U.S. District court alleges that the state in carrying out the stocking of hatchery steelhead program is violating the federal Endangered Species Act in that the cultured fish are competing and hybridizing with wild populations hindering the recovery of stocks listed as threatened under the ESA.

Named as defendants in the case are the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission.

State fisheries managers say that despite the fact that NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency administering and enforcing the terms of the Endangered Species Act concerning Puget Sound steelhead, Puget Sound chinook and Puget Sound bull trout has not certified WDFW's hatchery steelhead program, substantial changes they have made in the last 10 years to the propagation of hatchery steelhead are likely to be found to be within the bounds of acceptable impacts to the federally protected wild stocks.

Formal federal certification of the overall Puget Sound hatchery steelhead program is pending completion in 2015 of an updated study and management plan that is to be submitted by the state. In the interim, NOAA fisheries agreed to cover the state's program under terms of its annual ESA permit dealing with chinook salmon.   

If an immediate injunction is granted barring release of steelhead smolts while the lawsuit is adjudicated, the department has not announced what it may do with the steelhead. But with relatively limited options for their release into waters where they would not legally pose a threat, it's likely that the majority would have to be killed.

The Nooksack River is scheduled to receive some 85,000 hatchery-bred winter steelhead in May, some 250,000 also are set to be liberated in the Skagit River.