The agreement with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe applies this year to the Elwha and its tributaries, and was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.
The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has agreed to hold off planting any nonnative Chambers Creek hatchery fish in the Elwha River this year.
The tribe was on course to plant the nonnative steelhead as soon as April.
The agreement applies to the Elwha and its tributaries, and was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. The interim agreement, signed with the Wild Fish Conservancy, The Conservation Angler, the Federation of Fly Fishers Steelhead Committee and the Wild Steelhead Coalition, grew out of a lawsuit filed by the four groups Feb. 9.
The groups sued federal agencies and officials of the tribe, seeking to block releases of the fish into the Elwha. They claim the releases would violate the federal Endangered Species Act by harming wild steelhead, a threatened species.
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The agreement, approved and signed by U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle, does not address the substance of that suit or the claims or assertions on the hatchery issue made by either side.
The agreement also doesn’t speak to potential releases of nonnative steelhead in the river in the future.
In return for the tribe’s commitment, the plaintiffs agreed to hold off on seeking a preliminary injunction in 2012.
Kurt Beardslee of the Wild Fish Conservancy said he was grateful for the agreement, which he hopes buys time for further negotiation of the fish-restoration plan for the river.
Biologists for the National Park Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle and the tribe have advised the tribe against the plan.
The tribe has planted Chambers Creek fish, native to South Puget Sound, in the Elwha since 1977 to provide an opportunity for tribal fishermen in the river, where two dams built without providing fish passage destroyed the river’s once legendary runs. The fish were first planted in the river by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 1957 for sport fishing.
The tribe had intended to keep planting greatly reduced numbers of Chambers Creek steelhead, reared at its new $16 million hatchery built for the tribe as part of the Elwha restoration project.
Dam removal began last September, and the $325 million project is expected to take as long as three years.
But now that the Elwha dams are coming out, scientists warn that the nonnative fish would be able to colonize the upper river, posing undue risk to native resident fish in the Elwha, as well as wild native steelhead in the Elwha that the dam-removal program is intended to recover.
Extensive studies of hatchery fish in other basins have found they increase risk of loss of fitness in native steelhead by interbreeding with wild fish.
They also can compete with natural fish for food, territory, spawning sites and access to mates; risk the introduction of disease; and add another layer of uncertainty to the recovery equation.
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.