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NW Fishletter #278, August 13, 2010

[2] Feds Tackle Hatchery Reform

NOAA Fisheries has finally released its draft of alternatives for future operation of Columbia Basin hatcheries, hoping to reduce their adverse impacts on wild populations of salmon and steelhead, which only make up about 20 percent of the returning salmonids.

Since their process to examine Mitchell Act hatcheries began way back in 2004, its scope has widened to include all 178 programs in the basin. They say the wider analysis will give them a headstart on their future review of basin hatchery programs under the ESA.

It's not hard to see where the new policy is headed. The Obama administration has added language to the hydro BiOp that calls for more examination of impacts of hatchery fish on ESA-listed wild populations.

So NOAA Fisheries is starting with the facilities that were built to mitigate for salmon losses from building some of the first mainstem dams. The Mitchell Act has provided annual funding for these programs since the 1940s, which still produce about 35 percent of all salmonids released in the basin. These facilities are operated or funded by BPA, the Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In recent years, Mitchell Act spending has ranged from $11 million to $16 million annually.

The DEIS [Draft Environmental Impact Statement] borrows heavily from another years-long review of hatcheries completed in 2009. That was the Congressionally-mandated HSRG's [Hatchery Scientific Review Group] examination that was coordinated by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

One of the HSRG's major findings was that reforming hatchery operations by itself would not be enough to significantly reduce impacts of hatchery fish on wild fish--but that harvest reform was also a necessary component of the effort.

That's a controversial topic the new DEIS doesn't touch. The HSRG had tried to grapple with it, and promised completion of a white paper on harvest issues, but such a document has never seen the light of day. It's "dead in the water," according to one HSRG member, who added that the HSRG is pretty much dead in the water as well.

The group did suggest in its 2009 review that more selective fisheries in the basin would go hand in hand with improved hatchery practices. That's where a fish can be caught in a purse or beach seine or fish wheel, and either harvested if it has a clipped fin (hatchery fish), or released if its a wild fish (intact fin).

Since then, both the Colville Tribes and WDFW have been researching different methods of selective fishing, and are gearing up for a major effort this month in the lower Columbia to test various gear on the fall chinook run.

It's all part of a revised salmon recovery policy that has been underway for years, but strongly criticized by some harvest groups worried that hatchery reform could mean reduced harvests and could conflict with other legal mandates that support tribal fishing regimes. Since Columbia Basin hatcheries produce about 80 percent of all returning chinook and steelhead, they could be right.

One of the alternatives examined in the new DEIS would produce only about one-third of the 144 million salmon and steelhead smolts now released every year.

But selective fishing supporters say if their harvest regimes were in place, such draconian cuts would be unnecessary, and that the level of commercial harvest could be much higher, while having less impact on wild stocks.

At the same time, catching more marked fish could reduce the number of hatchery fish that spawn in the wild.

"We are not huge fans of marking all hatchery fish," said Mike Matylewich, manager of the fishery management department of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. He said the lower Columbia tribes are not really sure that more selective fishing would be as effective as some claim. Matylewich said there are so many hatchery fish compared to wild fish, that it would seem to be really difficult to achieve conservation goals by boosting selective fisheries.

He said the research being done by the Colville Tribes and others on selective fishing was laudable, but he questioned whether the ultimate survival of wild fish that were released from beach seines was as high as some think.

He said CRITFC would be sending comments to NOAA Fisheries about the DEIS, but it will take some time to go through the huge document. The comment period is for 90 days.

He noted that the CRITFC tribes agreed with some parts of the earlier HSRG report, and disagreed with others. He said it would be useful "as a tool, not a rule" because there are legal obligations to mitigate for dam losses.

Matylewich said the tribes are still working to put more hatchery fish past the dams, and he called it a "more, in place, in kind" policy that would help upriver fishers. Most Mitchell Act hatcheries were built below Bonneville Dam and provided most of the increased harvest opportunities for ocean and lower Columbia fisheries.

But the NOAA Fisheries DEIS sticks strictly to hatchery operations. The agency is now soliciting public comment on the five alternatives it has developed.

The first alternative calls for maintaining the current system, which produces mostly fall chinook for harvest opportunities in the ocean and the river.

The second alternative would end all Mitchell Act funding and close those hatcheries, which would substantially reduce catches of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead (by 50 percent in all ocean and river fisheries). But programs would remain that kept wild stocks better separated from other programs devoted to producing fish for harvest. No new hatchery programs would be in the works under this alternative, either.

A third alternative would apply an intermediate performance goal (developed by the HSRG) to all basin hatcheries to reduce negative effects on natural-origin fish and add seasonal weirs to streams to keep more hatchery fish out of natural spawning areas. Mitchell Act funding would continue to fund these efforts.

Alternative four would also apply an intermediate performance goal to hatcheries in the basin, but a stronger goal (also developed by the HSRG) for programs in the Willamette/Lower Columbia region, with some new hatchery programs allowed to boost harvest opportunity below Bonneville Dam and in ocean fisheries. Mitchell Act money would be spent to carry out this comprehensive plan.

A fifth alternative would still use Mitchell Act money, but it would apply the stronger performance goal to all basin hatchery programs that affected primary and contributing salmon and steelhead populations in the Interior Columbia domain.

According to the DEIS, the second alternative would reduce the number of adult Columbia River salmon in the ocean by about 33 percent. NMFS says this could significantly reduce food sources for ESA-listed killer whales from Puget Sound.

The DEIS also estimates that running hatcheries under the third alternative would cut overall production by 7 percent, while alternative four would reduce it by only about 2 percent, and the fifth alternative would reduce production by 5 percent.

The region will probably not stand for anything close to implementation of the second alternative, which the agency estimates would reduce hatchery smolt production by 52 percent, while reductions from the last three options ranged between 12 percent and 19 percent fewer smolts than produced now.

The agency said it is not wedded to any particular alternative, and that the final result will probably be a combination of them. In fact, NOAA didn't seem very supportive of the performance goals that it had put forth.

In an executive summary, the agency said even though it tried to quantify the amount of hatchery influence on a population by borrowing the HSRG's performance goals (an index based on the number of hatchery-origin spawners in the natural escapement of a population and the percent of natural-origin broodstock used in the hatchery program), "no determination has been made on their adequacy under the ESA. NMFS is not advocating their use by fishery managers."

They said they hoped reviewers understood the dynamics of population that affected these values.

A little-recognized 2009 review of these metrics by yet another group--mainly NMFS agency scientists called the Recovery Implementation Science Team--cautioned that the HSRG's efforts to quantify fish fitness underestimated the uncertainty of the exercise. They said the results were rather arbitrary and may or may not lead to actions that would help recover natural populations. They said they did not think the model used (AHA or All-H) "incorporates enough information to accurately predict the outcomes of specific hatchery or habitat actions in a quantitative way." -B. R.

The following links were mentioned in this story:

Columbia Basin Hatchery Draft Environmental Impact Statement

NW Fishletter 260

Recovery Implementation Science Team Hatchery Reform Science 2009

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