Alanna Mayham

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Conservationists in the Pacific Northwest who are trying to prevent the extinction of wild salmon and reduce harm to endangered Southern Resident killer whales claims in a lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday the several federal, state and local agencies are violating the Endangered Species Act through fish hatchery programs in the Lower Columbia River Basin.

Wild Fish Conservancy, a Washington-state based nonprofit, and The Conservation Angler, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, focused their lawsuit on certain salmon and steelhead hatchery programs in the portion of the basin below the Bonneville Lock and Dam.

The stretch of the Columbia River at issue runs 146 miles between the borders of Oregon and Washington state from the dam to the Pacific Ocean. But while encompassing less than 12% of the Columbia River’s total length, the river’s lower basin and its tributaries feature over 30 dams and several other flow control structures that have contributed to the region’s depleting fish populations in various ways.

“Thirteen salmon and steelhead species in the Columbia River basin are listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA,” the plaintiffs say in their complaint.

Hydropower projects and water diversions have not impacted these fish alone, the groups say. In addition to overfishing and habitat degradation, they describe how efforts to supplement declining salmon and steelhead with hatchery-bred species actively harm wild populations through poor interbreeding outcomes and competition for resources.

“Several threatened salmon and steelhead species in the Lower Columbia River basin are severely depressed and unable to recover due, in large part, to excessive hatchery releases to that portion of the basin that are funded by the National Marine Fisheries Service under the Mitchell Act and implemented by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Clatsop County Fisheries,” the groups say.

When announcing their intent to sue the defendant agencies in January, the groups cited a 2023 study that determined that — despite a $9 billion federal investment into Columbia River hatcheries and restoration efforts — the return numbers of wild salmon and steelhead over the last 40 years have been paltry.

“The ESA is the nation’s most important tool to protect biodiversity, and Congress provided a means under the ESA for the public to hold entities accountable for violating the act,” said David Moskowitz, executive director for The Conservation Angler, in a statement in January. “The data clearly shows that the Mitchell Act and SAFE hatchery programs are failing to comply with requirements to prevent the extinction of ESA-listed steelhead, chinook, coho, and chum salmon. We are filing this notice to hold the agencies accountable for these failures and to ensure that these species receive the ESA protections that they are afforded by law.”

The groups argue that defunding Columbia River hatcheries will reduce ongoing harm to endangered Southern Resident orcas who rely on healthy wild salmon to survive — an issue central to a 2020 lawsuit that Wild Fish Conservancy is still pursuing in an attempt to shut down a Southeast Alaska Chinook troll fishery.

“Despite decades of science demonstrating the damaging effects of hatcheries on wild salmon, government at all levels are knowingly complacent with violating the law and causing the decline of wild salmon and steelhead throughout the Columbia River basin,” said Emma Helverson, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, in a statement last January. “We’ve run out of time and options. These species represent an irreplaceable public heritage, and we’re taking every action to hold the government accountable for perpetuating this chronic harm caused by Columbia River hatcheries, before it’s too late.”