By Gene Johnson Associated Press
SEATTLE — Like many others around the state, the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery was built on an irony.
Designed to create artificial spawning ground for salmon, it also blocked other fish — bull trout — from reaching their natural spawning grounds farther up Icicle Creek, devastating the fish’s population over the past 70 years.
A federal appeals court ruling this week could set the stage for changes at the hatchery. A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled 2-1 on Tuesday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to ensure that the salmon hatchery doesn’t endanger the tiny remaining bull trout population in Icicle Creek, a tributary of the Wenatchee River.
Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, which filed the lawsuit, said Wednesday the group has been pushing federal officials for years to redesign the hatchery to provide for year-round fish passage.
“We’re hoping that they allow the river to be a river again, instead of allowing it to be held hostage by the hatchery,” Beardslee said.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the Wildlife Service prepared a biological opinion regarding the hatchery’s impact on bull trout. Bull trout sometimes stay in the stream where they’re born and sometimes migrate to larger bodies of water, returning to their natal streams to spawn; the migratory ones in Icicle Creek are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The agency limited its biological opinion to a five-year period, from 2006-2011, and found that the hatchery’s operations during that time were not likely to hurt to the bull trout’s chances of survival or recovery in Icicle Creek.
The biological opinion also found, however, that the fish’s population was in decline, that very few if any migratory bull trout make it to their spawning grounds in any given year and that the hatchery blocks the passage of about 20 bull trout annually.
The 9th Circuit said that given those facts, the conclusion that the hatchery doesn’t hurt the fish’s chances of survival was arbitrary. It threw out the biological opinion, and told a federal judge in Spokane to find Fish and Wildlife liable for violating the Endangered Species Act and to consider ways the agency can fix the problem.
The agency is reviewing the decision and considering whether to ask for reconsideration by a larger 9th Circuit panel, said spokeswoman Vanessa Kauffman. She declined to comment further.
Beardslee said 39 state-run hatcheries around the state similarly block migratory fish from reaching their spawning grounds, and he hopes changes to the Leavenworth hatchery allowing for year-round fish passage will provide a template for changes to those hatcheries as well. Such changes could included man-made channels that mimic a river’s natural flow and allow better access for fish than typical fish ladders do.
“All these things are very fixable,” Beardslee said. “You can have a hatchery that’s successful and a healthy river. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”