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Fish Stocking Reform

San Diego Union-Tribune, November 11, 2008

Judge's decision could impact stocking of state-grown hatchery fish
By Ed Zieralski, Union-Tribune staff writer

A Superior Court judge's decision late Friday on a lawsuit attacking the California Department of Fish and Game's trout and salmon stocking programs could impact the stocking of state-grown hatchery fish here and throughout California.

DFG Director Donald Koch said he will meet with the petitioners – the Center for Biological Diversity and the Pacific Rivers Council – within the next two weeks to seek a continuance of the DFG's fish stocking programs.

“The department is concerned with the recreational impacts that curtailing our stocking programs have on the fishing community,” Koch said in the DFG's release. “In addition, our stocking program has important benefits to many small businesses and communities that depend on fishing.”

How did the DFG get in this mess? It started in October of 2006 when the Center for Biological Diversity and the Pacific Rivers Council sued the DFG over its fish stocking programs.

The Stanford Environmental Law Clinic provided pro bono legal counsel to the two nonprofit organizations in their litigation against the Department of Fish and Game, according to Judith Romero, associate director of media relations for Stanford Law School. Romero said it's possible that students currently enrolled in Stanford's Environmental Law Clinic course may be present at the negotiations along with their supervising attorney or attorneys. The original three students who acted as counsel in the case no longer are enrolled in the Environmental Law Clinic.

The DFG has been stocking fish for more than 100 years, but the two petitioners in their claim stated that the practice of putting hatchery-raised, non-native trout into the state's waters put native frog and native fish species at risk. They also claimed that no Environmental Impact Report (EIR) had been completed for the programs.

The court ruled in May 2007 that fish stocking has “significant environmental impacts” on “aquatic ecosystems” and “in particular, on native species of fish, amphibians and insects, some of which are threatened or endangered,” and ordered the department to analyze and mitigate the impacts of the stocking program in an EIR by the end of 2008.

“The far reaching, often disastrous consequences of stocking hatchery fish have been known for decades,” said Dr. Chris Frissell, director of science and conservation for Pacific Rivers Council. “It's far past time the Department of Fish and Game completed a credible review of the environmental impacts of its hatchery program and identified the steps needed to limit its impacts to sensitive native species, as many other states have done. Interim measures are merely a short-term safety net to protect vulnerable species and waters until the State meets its legal mandate to produce a report.”

Noah Greenwald, program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, accused the DFG of using scare tactics in its release it put out Monday. For one thing, the DFG wrongly identified students at Stanford Law School as the petitioners in the case.

“We would have waited and tried to work something out before issuing a press release, but since they put that out Monday, we needed to respond to it,” Greenwald said. “I think we'll be able to work something out with them so they can still stock fish in some places. What we're looking for is for them to take precautions to avoid impacts on sensitive native fish and amphibian species while conducting an Environmental Impact Report and developing a plan.”

Greenwald said the judge's order Friday merely orders the DFG into talks with the the Center and Council about the trout stocking program and to develop interim measures to limit the impacts of fish stocking. They are most concerned about the hatchery-raised fish preying on senstive fish and frogs and driving them to extinction.

“Interim measures limiting stocking are necessary to help save California's native fish and frogs from extinction,” Greenwald said. “Fish and Game should still be able to stock hatchery fish, but in places where they know they won't be harming native species.”

Greenwald said the Center and Pacific Rivers Council asked for interim restrictions on stocking, including not stocking where sensitive species, such as California golden trout, Santa Ana sucker, mountain yellow-legged frog, and cascades frog, are known to be present or where the Department has yet to survey.

“The Judge indicated in a tentative order that such interim measures may be necessary, but gave the DFG until Nov. 24 to negotiate an agreement with the two non-profit organizations to determine where stocking could take place pending completion of the EIR,” the Center's release said. “If no agreement is reached, the Judge indicated that he would consider limiting stocking only to water bodies where no at-risk species occur on an interim basis, as proposed by petitioners.

According to a DFG release Monday, the agency has been “engaged in the years-long and multimillion dollar EIR process, now scheduled to be completed in January 2010.”

Greenwald believes there are conflicting interests inside the DFG on the issue, which is one reason it's taking so long for the agency to complete its court-ordered environmental impact report.

“Some in the agency, particularly the biologists and scientists, recognize the seriousness of the issue and realize the EIR must be done,” Greenwald said. “Others in the agency aren't taking it as seriously and don't understand why they have to do it (the EIR).”

The DFG release stated that if the agency can't reach an agreement with the Center and the Council it might face a court injunction that “could stop altogether or significantly reduce its fish stocking programs,” according to the DFG.

If the two sides do reach an agreement, the two parties will take the agreement back to the judge for approval.

Last week, the DFG stocked Chollas, Cuyamaca, Lindo Lake and Murray in San Diego County. This week, the DFG is scheduled to stock Doane Pond, atop Palomar Mountain. It also stocks Lower Otay Lake.

This lawsuit will not impact the stocking of trout at San Diego County lakes such as Dixon, Cuyamaca, Jennings, Miramar, Morena, Poway, Santee and Wohlford, where city, recreation districts or water agencies pay for the stocked trout from private hatcheries.

The city of San Diego stocks trout at Miramar, but doesn't stock Murray or Lower Otay, relying instead on the DFG's hatchery trout.

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Photo © Paul S. Hamilton