Changes in Store for Trinity River Fish Hatchery

Hatchery workers preparing fingerlings for release into the Trinity River. /Photo courtesy of Hoopa Valley Tribal Fisheries

By KRISTAN KORNS, Two Rivers Tribune

A host of negotiators with a stake in Trinity River fish, including the Hoopa and Yurok Tribes, are reportedly close to settling a lawsuit over hatchery operations.

The Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife over how the Trinity River Hatchery was being run.

EPIC charged that the facility was being run without a Hatchery Genetic Management Plan (HGMP), which is a violation of Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations.

They also charged that steelhead hatchlings from the hatchery were competing for resources and food with endangered Coho salmon native non-hatchery hatchlings, and that adult Coho salmon were being “illegally taken” by the hatchery for their eggs.

Gary Hughes, EPIC’s executive director, said, “As a public interest organization, we were compelled to take action to ensure that the ecological interactions between hatchery Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, and Coho salmon in the Trinity River were taken into consideration.”

The Hoopa and Yurok Tribes, not originally part of the lawsuit, joined in as defendants alongside the BOR and Department of Fish and Wildlife. Both tribes were concerned about the effects on fishing of any possible court-ordered halt of hatchery operations.

George Kautsky, deputy director of Hoopa Tribal Fisheries, said, “If this hatchery closed, it would be significant for this tribe and its ability to harvest fish.”

Rebecca McMahon, Hoopa’s former acting senior attorney, said, “The Tribe is basically co-managing the hatchery and the outcome of the suit would impact tribal fishing rights, so they had to become involved.”

Tribes in the Klamath River Basin have relied on subsistence fishing for many thousands of years, and the Hoopa and Yurok Tribes’ fishing rights are federally-recognized.

Anadromous fish, including salmon and trout, must return to the rivers and streams where they were born to spawn. Trinity Dam, built in the 1950s, blocked off more than 109 miles of habitat formerly used by the fish.

The Trinity River Hatchery produces Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, and Coho salmon hatchlings from eggs, and releases them into the river.

McMahon said, “It’s a mitigation hatchery for the Trinity Dam. Its purpose was to try and mitigate for the loss of the habitat because of the dam.”

Ryan Jackson, Hoopa Valley tribal vice chairman, said, “The Federal government has known since 2008 the need to develop a hatchery and genetics management plan and failed to do so.”

“We had to step in and defend the BOR in order to defend against the reduction of tribal fishing rights,” Jackson said.

Kautsky said, “It’s awkward for the Tribe to find itself in a position where its federally-reserved fishing rights are held hostage on account of the federal government’s negligence.”

After several months of legal maneuvering and discussions, EPIC’s lawsuit over hatchery operations is reportedly close to ending with a negotiated settlement.

Hughes said, “There was a settlement conference and the parties arrived at an agreement in principle. The terms were agreed on, but it still needs to be approved by the respective councils.”

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, the Trinity River Hatchery will be required to submit a Hatchery Genetic Management Plan (HGMP).

McMahon said, “Completion of the hatchery plan is something that the Tribe has been fighting to have done for a while, so that aspect of the settlement is very positive.”

Jackson said, “BOR will be required by court order to produce a hatchery management plan that will be developed by tribal technical staff.”

Hoopa Tribal Fisheries started work on the plan even before the settlement agreement was negotiated.

“We’re working with the Yurok Tribe, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Bureau of Reclamation to prepare the HGMP for submission to NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] Fisheries in May,” Kautsky said.

Jackson said this could give the Hoopa Tribe more negotiating power when it comes to future management of the hatchery. “The Tribe is currently finalizing a MOA [Memorandum of Agreement] with the BOR to co-manage the hatchery.”

Kautsky said negotiations with the BOR and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on plans for a new governance structure at the hatchery – ongoing since 1998 – are almost complete.

Under the proposed plan, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, the Yurok Tribe, the BOR, and the state of California would form a four-party Governing Board to oversee hatchery operations.

“We’re hopeful that this is going to be the year that we succeed in signing an MOA for the Trinity River Hatchery,” Kautsky said.

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