The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) recently filed a lawsuit  aimed at reforming the antiquated and harmful operations at the Trinity River fish hatchery in order to protect wild coho salmon. The suit challenges the actions of officials at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for funding, administering, and operating the Trinity River fish hatchery in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The hatchery produces and releases hatchery Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout to mitigate for the loss of wild Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout due to construction of the Trinity and Lewiston dams and operation of the Central Valley Project. Hatchery Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout compete with, prey upon, and interbreed with wild coho salmon that are listed as threatened with extinction under the ESA.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has violated the ESA by “taking” wild coho salmon by collecting them for use as broodstock in the Trinity hatchery without the explicit approval of the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Department has also violated the ESA by releasing hatchery Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout that compete with, prey upon, or interbreed with wild coho salmon, and thus cause “take” of the ESA-listed fish. The Bureau of Reclamation is liable under the ESA for failing to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service as to the effects of its choice to finance the hatchery, and by jeopardizing the continued existence of wild coho salmon and adversely modifying their critical habitat.
“It is long past time for these hatchery operations to comply with the law, and work towards actually recovering wild salmon,” stated Andrew Orahoske, conservation director at EPIC. “Misguided bureaucrats at state and federal agencies continue to ignore the best available science and advice of experts, so this lawsuit is designed to shine a light on failed policies and open up a public process that is focused on the recovery of wild runs of salmon and steelhead.”
EPIC is represented by attorneys Pete Frost, from the Western Environmental Law Center, and Sharon Duggan.
Background on the Trinity River Hatchery
The Trinity River flows north-northwest 165 miles from the California Coast Range Mountains to its confluence with the Klamath River at Weitchpec, approximately 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The South Fork Trinity River, which enters the mainstem Trinity River below any impoundments, is the longest undammed river in California. Before reaching its confluence with the South Fork, the mainstem Trinity River flows into Trinity Lake, an impoundment created by the Trinity Dam, which stores water for the Central Valley Project. Seven miles downstream of the Trinity Dam is Lewiston Lake, an impoundment created by the Lewiston Dam, where stored water is diverted into the Sacramento River basin.
The Trinity hatchery is located at river mile 110 immediately downstream of the Lewiston Dam. The Trinity hatchery was built to mitigate the loss of salmon and steelhead habitat due to the construction of the Trinity and Lewiston dams and the operation of the Central Valley Project. BOR funds the Trinity hatchery. California Fish and Wildlife operates the Trinity hatchery.
Each year the Trinity hatchery produces approximately 4.6 million juvenile Chinook salmon, 500,000 juvenile coho salmon, and 800,000 juvenile steelhead trout. Each year the Trinity hatchery releases approximately 2.6 million Chinook salmon in June and 2 million Chinook salmon in October. Each year the Trinity hatchery releases 500,000 coho salmon between March and April. Each year the Trinity hatchery releases 800,000 steelhead trout in March. Fish are released from the Trinity hatchery into the Trinity River.
The Trinity River provides habitat for wild coho salmon. Wild coho salmon in the Trinity River and its tributaries are part of the Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast (“SONCC”) evolutionarily significant unit (“ESU”). SONCC coho are listed as threatened with extinction under the ESA. Critical habitat for the SONCC coho ESU includes all accessible reaches of the Klamath River and the Trinity River and the tributaries to each.
Wild coho salmon have a three-year life cycle divided equally between fresh and salt water. Wild coho salmon spawn in their natal streams between mid autumn and early winter. However, in times of water shortage, wild coho salmon will wait to enter fresh water, sometimes delaying spawning until the early spring. Wild coho salmon typically construct redds in the substrate of smaller tributaries to mainstem rivers. Wild coho salmon die after they spawn.
Juvenile wild coho salmon emerge as fry from redds in the late winter and spring, and move to relatively slow waters to rear. Juvenile wild coho salmon typically remain in fresh water for one year. Some juvenile wild coho salmon remain close to their natal sites, while others disperse throughout the watershed. Juvenile wild coho salmon undergo smoltification during their second spring season, approximately 18-19 months after egg fertilization, and outmigrate to the ocean.
Outmigration typically occurs between the beginning of March and the end of May, although timing patterns can vary year-to-year depending on environmental factors. Juvenile wild coho salmon do not migrate downstream continuously, but rather continue to forage and hold as they travel. After 16-17 months in the ocean, adult wild coho salmon return to their natal streams to spawn.
Historically, wild coho salmon were widely-distributed throughout the Trinity River system. The Lewiston Dam blocks upstream fish passage to 109 miles of historical spawning habitat. This mileage is approximately fifty percent of historic spawning habitat. In the remainder of the Trinity River basin, wild coho salmon populations have declined to a small fraction of historic levels. Currently, approximately fifteen percent of coho that return to the Trinity River are of wild origin.
California Fish and Wildlife collects wild coho salmon from the Trinity River to use as broodstock in the Trinity hatchery. California Fish and Wildlife collects broodstock using a fish ladder leading to a gathering tank located at the base of the Lewiston Dam. The Trinity hatchery collects a minimum of 500 adult female coho salmon and 500 adult male coho salmon for broodstock, about twenty percent of which are of wild origin. California Fish and Wildlife does not have a permit or authorization from NMFS to collect wild coho salmon. BOR does not have a permit or authorization from NMFS to finance the collection of wild coho salmon.
California Fish and Wildlife releases juvenile hatchery coho salmon from the Trinity hatchery into the Trinity River. All hatchery fish are fin-clipped for identification. Hatchery coho salmon harm wild coho salmon when the two populations interbreed. Hatchery coho salmon alter the genetic composition, phenotypic traits, and behavior of wild coho salmon. Genetic introgression—the transfer of genetics from stray hatchery fish to wild populations—lowers the fitness and genetic variability of wild coho salmon populations, decreasing productivity and abundance. The release of hatchery-raised Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout have harmful ecological effects on wild coho salmon and their habitat. Hatchery fish prey on wild coho salmon. Hatchery fish introduce and transmit diseased to wild coho salmon. Hatchery fish compete with wild coho salmon for food and spawning and rearing habitat. These ecological effects decrease the fitness and abundance of listed wild coho salmon.
EPIC Takes on Fish Hatcheries that are Harmful to Wild Salmon
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorize federal funding to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to operate fish hatcheries on the Mad River, Trinity River, Klamath River and numerous other rivers in California. In addition, a private hatchery operates on the Smith River, which is also funded by the State of California. Annually, these hatcheries produce millions of fish that are released into the wild. If not properly operated, hatcheries can cause harm to wild fish. Recent studies  find that hatchery fish that stray and mix with wild populations reduce the overall fitness of wild fish through genetic hybridization and domestication. In addition, hatchery fish directly compete with and depredate wild fish. All of this can add up to serious threats posed by hatchery operations that add to other stressors like water pollution, habitat destruction, dewatering, and the impacts of climate change.
Recently, the California Fish Hatchery Review Project completed a comprehensive statewide review of fish hatcheries  and found major problems in current operations throughout the state of California. The leading scientific experts in this project recommended many important changes. Unfortunately, these changes are coming slowly or not at all.
EPIC’s advocacy efforts for restoring wild fish populations includes many years of work defending forests and headwaters that provide clean water and valuable habitat for wild fish. Now, EPIC is undertaking a new initiative to reform fish hatcheries that have operated for too long without proper oversight. EPIC demands that state and federal agencies incorporate the best available science into updated management plans for all fish hatcheries, and to specifically develop Hatchery Genetic Management Plans, which has not yet occurred at North Coast hatcheries. In addition, the operations will have to ensure compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws.
By forcing state and federal agencies to abide by the law, incorporate the best available science, and respond to public concerns, everyone will benefit in the long run. The consultation process under the federal Endangered Species Act will result in hatchery operations that promote the restoration and genetic viability of wild fish populations. This will further advance natural recovery of native fish species to their historical abundance and beyond, eventually making fish hatcheries unnecessary and obsolete.