Environmental Activist Group Sues National Marine Fisheries Service over Failure to Protect Endangered Oregon Salmon

On Tuesday, the Northwest Environmental Advocates filed a complaint in the District of Oregon against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for issuing a “flawed” 2015 biological opinion that allegedly would not properly accommodate the multitude of salmon species that migrate in the region.

Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), states must identify and adopt water quality standards, with the goal of protecting native marine life and American citizens. Also, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) lists qualifications for species to be “in jeopardy” or endangered, of which many Pacific Northwest salmonid species are considered threatened or endangered.

This, according to the complaint, is mostly due to human intervention by tampering with bodies of water or the surrounding vegetation. This has caused “ increased juvenile mortality, increased susceptibility and exposure to diseases, impaired ability to avoid predators, altered migration timing, and changes in fish community structure that favor competitors of salmonids.” In the summer of 2015, due to high water temperatures, roughly 250,000 adult sockeye salmon died since they were unable to migrate upstream.

In July 1996, Oregon submitted a revision of its water quality standards to the EPA, with a numeric criteria for 20 degrees Celsius (20C) water temperatures, for salmonid rearing and migration. In 1999, the NMFS concluded that these standards were “likely to adversely affect salmonids.” For the next 16 years, fighting ensued over this temperature criterion but it remained despite numerous legal challenges and scientific debate. In the NMFS’ 2015 biological opinion, they concluded that Oregon’s water quality standards “appear to be an effective means for minimizing the adverse effects likely to be experienced by migrating salmon and steelhead under the 20°C migration corridor criterion” which the plaintiff argued is “legally flawed” since they relied on “improper factors.” 

The Northwest Environmental Advocates are seeking declaratory relief that the NMFS’ 2015 biological opinion was arbitrary and capricious, that the Court set aside the biological opinion and remand that the NMFS issue a new one, attorney’s fees and costs, and other relief.

The plaintiffs are represented by Allison Laplante and Bridgett Buss of Lewis & Clark College.