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[1] Hatchery Versus Wild Fish: Latest Round Leads To Petition
[2] New Regulation Calls For Marking All Federal Hatchery Fish
[3] Lower Columbia Gillnetters Get One More Day Of Fishing
[4] Power Council Adjourns Early To Rewrite Mainstem Amendments
[5] Latest Water Supply Forecast Up Slightly
[6] Groups Sue Over Puget Sound Hatchery Operations

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A report published in a recent issue of the journal Science has found evidence that hatchery-raised salmon may develop some traits that make them unfit for helping to boost wild fish populations.

But next week, a group of retired, well-known Northwest fishery biologists will be petitioning the US Secretary of Commerce to add a new rule that would add many hatchery stocks to the "evolutionarily significant units" or ESUs of mostly wild fish stocks on the West Coast that are now protected under the Endangered Species Act. The petition is expected to be filed March 24 in Washington, DC.

The March 14 Science article (vol. 299, No. 5613) was published as a huge debate heats up in the Northwest over whether hatchery fish can be used to help increase the numbers of wild fish listed under the Endangered Species Act, with the eventual goal of de-listing them.

The Science study said several generations of fish raised in a hatchery environment produced increasingly smaller eggs, a trait that is "maladaptive in nature" because natural selection favors large eggs. The scientists--four from Canada and one from Kentucky--also looked at four British Columbia rivers where wild chinook populations had been supplemented by varying numbers of hatchery salmon. The trend toward smaller eggs was evident in the two rivers where more hatchery fish spawned with wild stocks. Smaller eggs mean smaller juveniles that could be at a disadvantage when competing for food with fish hatched from larger eggs, the scientists said.

"These data indicate that unintentional selection resulting in small egg size is potentially a serious concern for the long-term success of salmonid supplementation efforts," the authors said, "but the effect could be minimized through modified breeding practices."

Washington state hatchery managers say they already take great pains when breeding salmon, and that the small-egg phenomenon is not evident in their own programs. "Our experience does not see the same results as the Science article," said John Kerwin, who heads the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's hatchery program.

Kerwin said the state's captive broodstock efforts for spring chinook in the Tucannon and Methow rivers include breeding protocols that try to ensure spawners represent a wide spectrum of genetic traits. He said one instance where the state has seen a tendency towards smaller fish and smaller eggs has been in a coho hatchery in south Puget Sound on the Puyallup River, where net and recreational fisheries that target larger fish have probably allowed the smaller coho to predominate returns to the hatchery. Kerwin also cautioned that smaller returning fish could be due to environmental factors such as ocean conditions.

As part of an effort to update the ESA status of listed West Coast stocks, federal scientists are working to develop a hatchery policy that will attempt to gauge the effects of hatchery fish that spawn with wild ESA-listed stocks. The work began after a federal judge ruled that the feds had violated the ESA by not offering hatchery coho stocks the same protections as the wild component of the Oregon coastal coho stock [Alsea Valley Alliance v. NMFS]. Since the agency had previously listed the hatchery component of the stock in the same "evolutionarily significant unit" with the wild component, Oregon District Court Judge Michael Hogan ruled that the hatchery fish must be protected as well. The agency did not appeal the decision, and decided instead to revamp its hatchery policy.

However, environmental and fishing groups appealed Hogan's decision to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, where oral arguments are now slated for May 8. The Niners put a stay on Hogan's decision pending the appeal's outcome.

A recent NOAA Fisheries draft of fish status updates outlined the feds' thinking on a new policy to determine whether a hatchery stock will be designated as part of a listed ESU. It spelled out four categories for hatchery populations, differentiated by the extent that each group was derived from native, local stocks and had been genetically affected by artificial propagation.

NOAA Fisheries biologists have no schedule yet for the new policy's release, but the status updates should be completed by November, said federal biologist Mike Delarm. Since the new hatchery policy must be used to help determine the final updates, the new policy must be completed before then.

The pro-hatchery fish group of retired biologists claim that most of the criticism of hatchery salmon "is based on comparisons between divergent stocks of fish, which is not a true comparison between wild and hatchery fish from the same stock." The group also said these arguments are clouded by uncertainties, with too few well-designed studies to provide the hard data to test assumptions.

The group--including retired federal scientist Gary Wedemeyer, Jim Lannan, William McNeil, Don Amend, and Charlie Smith--in 2001 circulated a paper on hatchery and wild salmon. Saying that genetics arguments supporting wild fish were "politicized" science, the biologists pointed out that arguments over "fitness" are theoretical and ignore the fact that both hatchery and wild fish "are acted upon by the same evolutionary forces during the majority of their life cycle in the ocean."

Regardless of how the ESA legally defined a species, "the gene remains the fundamental unit of heredity," the retired biologists said. When some genetic resources are lost, they cannot be restored. "It is now entirely possible that there is greater genetic diversity in hatchery salmon populations than in some wild populations," they said in their paper. -Bill Rudolph


Representative Norm Dicks (D-WA) has been successful in his effort to require the marking of all fish reared in federal hatcheries or funded by federal money. The new regulation is contained in the Interior Department's appropriations bill signed by President Bush in February.

"We simply must adopt new and more comprehensive strategies such as this one to assure viable populations of fish available for harvesting, while protecting wild fish," Dicks said in a recent press release.

Marked hatchery fish, usually identified by a clipped adipose fin near the tail on the dorsal side of the fish, make them easy to spot when wild fish are off limits to harvest, usually because the wild ones are protected under the ESA.

Most opposition to this marking requirement comes from regional Indian tribes, according to Dicks' staffer Bryan McConaughy. The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission says, unlike the state, they have cut back on their harvest "so there will be a fish resource for future generations." They also say, "It is questionable to mass mark all production... Yet, the current approach is to do so, even in areas where healthy stocks exist and are not limiting access to hatchery returns."

The commission also said it would cost too much at a time when funds are in short supply, and would interfere with international agreements on salmon management. Though they did not provide comments in support of mass marking, they said, "The tribes do not oppose mass marking. We never have. We simply advocate doing it right...."

Others involved in fish management agreed. USFWS' Lee Hillwig, who met with Dicks, said the fish management agencies recognize mass marking is coming and everyone is committed to make it work though costs could be substantial. If the chinook releases from Coleman and Spring Creek hatcheries are to be marked, seven or eight new marking trailers would be needed at a cost of $800,000 each. If the fish are to be coded-wire-tagged, the expense would be even more. The Spring Creek hatchery, just upstream from Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, releases 15 million fall chinook each year.

NOAA Fisheries spokesman Rob Jones said that all yearling hatchery releases--spring chinook and steelhead from Mitchell Act hatcheries on the lower Columbia--are marked now with by clipped adipose fins. But some coho, provided to the tribes for recovery work, are not marked, along with fall chinook.

Jones, who met with Dicks last Monday, said the fish management agencies "...agreed that we shouldn't mark for the sake of marking. We need to first figure out what needs to be marked to achieve the coastwide salmon harvest and conservation needs."

Jones did say that all chinook in 42 hatchery programs in Puget Sound are now 100 percent marked. "This is another step in the process to improve management of the fish for harvest and conservation."

Jones said, for a harvest program "we need an external mark." But some fisheries like lower Columbia River terminal areas don't need marked fish because those harvest areas are designed to avoid wild salmon.

The NOAA spokesman also said more research is needed to determine the mortality associated with a selective fishery where unmarked wild fish are released. Jones noted that the expected mortality rate of spring chinook in 40-degree water is lower than for summer steelhead in 70-degree water. So, the mortality rates can vary, depending on encounter rates, multiple captures, environmental conditions and maturity of the fish.

Conservation groups, including Washington Trout, Native Fish Society, National Audubon Society, and the Wild Steelhead Coalition supported Dicks' efforts. "For the most part," they said in written comments, "it is not possible to manage salmon and steelhead fisheries in ways that assure harmful impacts to non-target stocks remain below critical threshold levels without mass marking of hatchery salmon and steelhead."

These groups also supported marking in order to distinguish hatchery fish in natural spawning populations. They said the presence of first-generation hatchery-origin fish on spawning grounds at levels greater than 10 percent is expected to reduce fitness of naturally spawning salmon and steelhead and impede recovery efforts.

Biologist Jim Lichatowich, author of Salmon Without Rivers, said he favored the mass marking strategy, but noted two big problems associated with it. "One is the actual mortality on released wild fish that are caught while taking hatchery fish," he said. "The other is compatibility with the Pacific Salmon Treaty and effective harvest management for salmon."

"I have some problems with this legislation if it provides 'no exceptions,'" said Don Campton, USFWS research biologist. "For example, in conservation or research hatchery programs, it may be highly undesirable to harvest hatchery-origin fish if returning adults are necessary for achieving a conservation or research goal."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates or funds 22 hatchery programs in Oregon and Washington, releasing 60.8 million unmarked salmon and steelhead annually. In the Columbia River 22.8 million unmarked salmonids are released, mostly fall chinook, but coho, summer steelhead and spring chinook make up a large share of unmarked fish. Most of the unmarked summer steelhead, coho, and spring chinook are provided to the tribes. These are called "recovery fish."

The new requirement has BPA fish and wildlife folks scratching their heads as well, wondering if they must comply. The power agency spends millions every year to fund several tribal hatcheries in the Columbia Basin. Some of the fish released from these facilities are not currently marked. -Bill Bakke


This year's cock-eyed fishing season still has harvest managers stymied. Nevertheless, they have allowed one more day of winter fishing for lower Columbia River gillnetters after test fishing showed the ratio between upriver chinook and Willamette fish had nearly evened out.

Managers had cut off the fishing early last month after only two days, when it became evident that over 80 percent of the catch was bound upriver past Bonneville Dam. That's a definite no-no, since the fishery was created to harvest surplus hatchery fish bound for the Willamette River. In a normal year, about 80 percent of the early fish are headed there.

Fish counts at Bonneville Dam are more than 10 times above the 10-year average, made up mainly of lunker hatchery fish bound for the Snake River that have spent the past three years in the ocean. Over 6,000 chinook were counted by March 18, while the 10-year average is 460 fish.

It could be a signal of an early run, said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Joe Hymer. But he admitted it was a puzzling situation because the main Willamette chinook run still had not appeared. Fish managers expect about 145,000 upriver Columbia spring chinook this year, along with nearly 110,000 Willamette springers. -B. R.


Northwest Power Planning Council staffers found themselves waiting hours for a plane out of Montana last week after the council ended their monthly meeting early because the group wasn't ready to finalize its mainstem amendments to the region's fish and wildlife program.

Instead, members went into caucus to discuss their next move, deciding to form an editorial committee that will hash out major areas of agreement and disagreement and start development of a revised document which could debut at a special council meeting on March 27.

As for the "preferred alternative" for mainstem amendments the council voted on last fall, "a good amount of it" will probably be included in the new draft, said Montana member John Hines, who will represent his state on the four-person editorial committee.

The preferred alternative calls for steadier water releases from federal reservoirs than current operations allow, dumping the mainstem flow targets mandated by the hydro BiOp, and allowing for more flexibility in hydro operations by ending the April 10 flood control and June refill requirements. Taken together, the changes would slightly reduce flow augmentation in the spring and add more water in the Snake in late summer.

Hines said he expected to discuss spill strategies as well. Montana had earlier proposed cutting spill at federal dams by nearly half-a proposal that would have become part of the council's preferred alternative but for a last-minute voting snafu at its Spokane meeting last October. The council has spent much of its time over the past five months discussing the pros and cons of flow augmentation, listening to scientists from state and federal agencies and reviewing their varying perspectives on whether boosting flows can aid fish survival in the mainstem rivers.

Both Montana and Idaho members strongly supported the council's preferred alternative, while Washington members and then-council member John Brogoitti from eastern Oregon, also voted for it. The only negative vote came from Oregon's Erich Bloch, who left the council Jan. 1. His replacement, Milton-Freewater lawyer and viticulturist Melinda Eden, may pick up where Bloch left off, supporting more flow and spill throughout the system.

Brogoitti was replaced in December by Gene Derfler after being fired late last year by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber. Derfler is a long-time state politician who recently retired as head of the Oregon state Senate.

A westsider, Derfler is considered something of a maverick and has strongly supported state agricultural interests in the past. His recent comments indicate that he may not support Oregon fish and wildlife proposals for more flow and spill at the federal dams, a position that could put him at odds with his own state agencies, as Brogoitti had been.

Fish managers from Washington, Oregon and regional tribes have opposed any changes to mainstem operations that would reduce BiOp mandates.

By March 7, member states were supposed to share proposed revisions to the mainstem amendments, incorporating comments from regional stakeholders, but some council members didn't get revisions until the following Monday--leaving the council with little time to digest the new proposals.

Washington's Karier wasn't keen to share his state's revisions. "They change by the day," he told NW Fishletter after the council's meeting in Whitefish, Montana last week. But Karier still voiced basic support for the Montana-Idaho position.

"I'd like to see the council balance the different and important interests," Karier said. He noted that the NMFS hydro BiOp, which governs operations to aid ESA-listed salmon and steelhead, doesn't take into account the upriver biops that have been written for ESA-listed sturgeon and bull trout by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

And then there are the major financial problems in the energy industry today, Karier added. He said the council has a broader mandate than federal agencies and it should try to reconcile the differences between the biops.

"There are ways to get steadier outflows to help upriver resident fish populations without disturbing flows downriver," said Karier, "but it's complicated,"

Karier said all hydro operations should be looked at from the power perspective, especially the most costly facility, which is spilling water for fish passage instead of using it for generation. Testing fish survival benefits from different levels of spill could help to fine-tune dam operations, Karier said, which could relieve some of BPA's financial burden without compromising fish needs.

The Washington contingent reportedly was struggling with its proposal for future operations at Grand Coulee dam, an element which became part of the council's preferred alternative. Originally submitted by upriver tribes, it calls for maintaining a steady reservoir elevation (1,283 feet) from September through December, a strategy that may improve food productivity for resident fish in Lake Roosevelt, although there is little evidence for it at present.

Power users have said such operations at Grand Coulee would interfere with fall and winter flows for ESA-listed chum in the lower Columbia and reduce effectiveness of Grand Coulee's generating flexibility. Mid-Columbia public utilities have said maintaining a steady elevation at Coulee would adversely affect the ability of downriver dams to meet regional loads and make it more difficult to keep the entire Western power grid in balance.

Oregon brought a new set of river operations in its latest proposed revisions, reportedly even more draconian than in its earlier proposals, which called for adding 2 million acre-feet in flows from Canadian and upper Snake storage to current BiOp levels, and spilling more at dams, which could add another $47 million annually to BPA's fish costs. The earlier Oregon proposals did not make it into the council's preferred alternative.

Now, Oregon is calling for dam modifications to reduce potentially harmful effects of spill--such changes could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, with no guarantee that Clean Water Act mandates could be met at all times.

Council Chair Judi Danielson was philosophical about the situation. She said by the end of this week, the council's committee will be well on its way to drafting a group of mainstem amendments that should be acceptable to all states. She thought they were already fairly close and getting Washington to resolve its position over the Grand Coulee issue was probably the biggest hurdle for them to overcome. "It will be interesting to see what they come up with," Danielson said. -Bill Rudolph


The March "mid-month" January-July water supply forecast for the Columbia River above The Dalles has bumped up five percentage points from the earlybird forecast to 75 percent of average. The latest forecast, released March 20, includes results from the big regional snowfall in early March; the earlier forecast did not.

Much snow has fallen in March, but much has also melted. The current forecast for the Columbia Basin above Grand Coulee is about 81 percent of average. Overall precipitation for the first 17 days of March above Coulee was 234 percent of average, according to the National Weather Service, and was nearly that high (188 percent) for the Columbia above The Dalles.

February precipitation throughout the Northwest was extremely low, only 54 percent of average above Coulee and 69 percent of average for the Columbia above The Dalles, but 89 percent of normal for the Snake River above Ice Harbor.

Observed precipitation from the October to March period was 78 percent of average for the Columbia above Coulee and 85 percent for the Columbia above The Dalles.

Other basins also saw extremely high precipitation in early March as tropical moisture came ashore early in the month and led to flooding in some areas. Montana's Flathead Basin has received 280 percent of average and northern Idaho's Clark Fork Basin was 243 percent of average for the month so far. The state's Clearwater Basin received 4.2 inches of precipitation by March 17, a whopping 274 percent of average--which added up to a basinwide snow water equivalent of 91 percent, much higher than most other Columbia subbasins.

Central Oregon was hurting, with Hood River and Willamette River drainages showing only slightly above 50 percent of their average snow water equivalents.

Washington's Yakima Basin was running about 73 percent to 85 percent of average snow water equivalent, with the April-September water supply forecast at 72 percent to 77 percent of average. -B. R.


Several conservation groups have filed a lawsuit against the state of Washington, saying hatchery releases of coho salmon and steelhead are illegal because the fish eat too many ESA-listed chinook in the region's estuary and fresh water habitats.

"These hatchery programs have been harming wild chinook since before they were listed, and they've been violating the ESA for over two years," said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Washington Trout.

The groups cited a California study that reported about 500,000 hatchery salmon consumed over seven million wild chinook fingerlings in the Feather River. They said if every hatchery coho or steelhead in Puget Sound ate just one listed chinook, the loss would be nearly six million young chinook.

A plan to re-vamp Puget Sound hatchery operations is already underway, as part an agreement with state, tribal and federal agencies. Studies have begun to evaluate the risks posed by ecological interactions of chinook salmon of hatchery and natural origin. The state says results may be used "to adjust, if necessary, release numbers, release timing, or characteristics of the programs. In the interim period, hatchery programs will apply measures based on the best available science to reduce the risks posed by ecological interactions."

The state says it plans on releasing less hatchery chinook and has terminated many net pen projects in the region, but a suite of proposed strategies focuses mainly on interactions between hatchery and wild chinook, rather than potential effects of other salmon species on juvenile chinook. -B. R.

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