The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Tokul Creek Fish Hatchery blocks federally listed chinook salmon from reaching their spawning grounds, traps and kills juvenile and adult salmon, destroys naturally incubating chinook eggs, and damages salmon habitats in Tokul Creek, a critical chinook-spawning tributary of the Snoqualmie River. So says Washington Trout and Washington Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, two regional environmental organizations that have filed a lawsuit in Seattle’s Federal District Court to force WDFW to fix the hatchery.

Washington Trout and PEER are accusing the state agency of violating the Endangered Species Act at Tokul Creek by allowing their hatchery facility to harm and kill, or “take” Puget Sound chinook, listed as a Threatened species since 1999.

The hatchery is located at the confluence of Tokul Creek and the Snoqualmie River, just downstream of Snoqualmie Falls. The water-diversion dam that supplies creek-water to the hatchery blocks nearly all fish from passing upstream, confining spawning salmon, including Threatened chinook, to the lowest 1/3-mile of creek. To protect the hatchery grounds, riprap rocks armor one bank of the creek, constraining the creek against the base of the steep slope opposite the hatchery, contributing to a large landslide. Because the dam blocks their upstream progress, almost all chinook in Tokul Creek must spawn below the slide. During winter rains the landslide dumps silt into the stream, suffocating and destroying incubating chinook eggs.

Some fish can occasionally pass over the dam during very extreme – and infrequent – high-water events, and WDFW has recently been capturing and hand-transporting chinook around the dam. But the dam’s water-intake is not adequately screened – a violation of the ESA and state law – and some of the transported fish have been drawn into it and killed.

An internal WDFW review of all its hatcheries, released in 1997, found that at least 38 hatcheries throughout the state have complete or partial fish-passage barriers associated with the facilities. Fish-passage barriers are specifically illegal under the ESA, and a violation of Washington law. Ironically, WDFW is the agency charged with enforcing the state law, and yet to date the department has not corrected any of the passage problems identified in the 1997 survey. In fact, the state has officially recognized the dam at Tokul Creek as the most problematic salmon blockage in the Snoqualmie watershed since 1994, without taking any corrective action.

“For years we’ve attempted to work with the Department, to help them find a solution at Tokul Creek,” said Kurt Beardslee, Executive Director of Washington Trout. “So far, they’ve just made vague promises and zero progress. WDFW seems more concerned with producing hatchery steelhead and trout for sport-anglers than in protecting listed salmon.”

The Tokul Creek Hatchery produces ocean-migrating steelhead for sport harvest in the Snoqualmie and Skykomish Rivers, and freshwater trout for planting in mountain lakes, including non-native species like brook trout. Other than the hatchery steelhead, the Snoqualmie watershed is managed for all-wild fish, and Tokul may have been one of the most important chinook salmon streams in the system. During a multi-year study conducted by WDFW, Tokul Creek showed the highest density of spawning chinook of any tributary in the Snoqualmie Basin.

In their complaint, Washington Trout and PEER allege that the diversion-dam, the water-intake, and the fill and bank armoring along the hatchery grounds are all harming listed salmon and violating the ESA. They ask the court to force WDFW to fix all three problems. They may file a preliminary motion to shut down the water-intake, so young chinook migrating to the ocean won’t be sucked into it and killed.

The National Marine Fisheries Service listed Puget Sound chinook as Threatened in March 1999. Technically, the Tokul Creek Hatchery has been violating the ESA since January 2001, when NMFS adopted a “4d Rule,” defining which activities illegally impact listed salmon. Since the 2000 spawning season, Washington Trout has attempted to cooperate with WDFW to mitigate the barrier problem, funding and helping to manage the project to transport salmon over the dam.

WDFW acknowledges the problems, and for several years has said it is exploring ways to permanently fix the barrier and water intake, including most recently seeking funding from the Army Corps of Engineers. Washington Trout and PEER are proceeding with their lawsuit now because WDFW has offered no firm timetable for fixing the problems at the hatchery, and because the agency has refused to prioritize the protection of Threatened chinook over hatchery-produced game fish.

“Under WDFW’s current approach, hatchery reform means hatchery remodel,” said Washington PEER Director Lea Mitchell. “their approach will cost more, take longer, and it fails to immediately eliminate the ESA take.”

Washington Trout, a non-profit salmon-conservation and advocacy group, and PEER, a national non-profit alliance of public employees, are being represented by Richard Smith of the Seattle law firm Smith and Lowney, PLLC.

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See the Washington Trout/PEER complaint.

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