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NW Fishletter #386, Oct. 2, 2018

[1] Columbia Basin Hatcheries Gear Up for 3 Million More Smolts

Editor's Note: This story has been changed to clarifly that the 800,000 spring Chinook smolts to be released at the Klickitat Hatchery come after reductions in hatchery production following years of producing 600,000 spring Chinook there.

Plans to release 3 million additional hatchery-raised smolts into the Columbia River Basin are raising questions about the impacts increased hatchery production could have on recovering wild stocks.

An estimated 3 million additional hatchery salmon smolts are set to be released into the Columbia River basin over the next year, through artificial production projects funded through the Bonneville Power Administration's fish and wildlife program.

The concerns came up at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Sept. 12 meeting.

Mark Fritsch, the Council's project implementation manager, updated the Council on 11 hatchery programs that have undergone a three-step review--a process required for all new fish and wildlife program hatchery projects or facilities--and four more potential projects that have not yet been reviewed.

In an interview with NW Fishletter, Fritsch said 3 million new hatchery fish may sound like a lot, but it's not such a large number compared with the roughly 139.5 million hatchery salmon and steelhead now released into the system each year.

At the peak of hatchery production, which occurred in 1981, some 237 million fish were produced in the basin's hatcheries, Fritsch said.

Hatcheries then started reducing production in the mid-1980s, and by the early 1990s, total releases had dropped to about 217 million salmon annually. By 1997, those releases leveled off to about 150 million fish.

For the last 10 years, the numbers have averaged about 140 million, although this fluctuates by a few million fish every year, Fritsch said.

The reduced numbers compared with 30 years ago isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, Fritsch noted. Most hatcheries now release older fish--parrs or smolts--instead of fry. "They're focusing more on quality instead of quantity," he said.

That's just one of the many hatchery practices that have changed over the last 20 years. Brian Missildine, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife natural resources scientist, told NW Fishletter that hatchery fish released at an older age are more likely to quickly migrate to the ocean instead of staying in local rivers and streams and competing with wild fish.

Missildine is a member of the Hatchery Scientific Review Group, a team established by Congress 20 years ago to review hatchery programs in the Pacific Northwest. Its goal is to continue to provide fish for harvest while reducing risks to natural populations. After a comprehensive review of more than 200 artificial propagation programs in western Washington, the effort was replicated throughout the Columbia River basin. Another 351 hatchery programs were reviewed between 2005 and 2009, and provided with recommendations for reform.

Missildine provided an update on hatchery reform efforts earlier this year that found about 88 percent of Washington state's hatchery programs are now meeting the review group's recommendations.

He said some of the populations of wild stocks have sunk so low that increased hatchery production isn't helping.

"The stocks are so low, it's a challenge to get there," while at the same time leaving enough wild fish on the spawning grounds, he said.

Missildine said the concern that hatchery fish will intermix with wild fish and reduce the wild stock's fitness level has driven efforts to reform hatcheries. Hatchery programs are now following guidelines to minimize those risks, through either segregated or integrated hatchery programs, he said.

Segregated hatchery programs raise fish and attempt to keep them completely separate from wild fish. One of the main reforms has been the use of weirs across rivers that lead to spawning grounds, where biologists catch the adult fish as they return. Biologists then remove the hatchery fish at the weirs, and pass the wild fish over the weir to spawn. Fishing regulations are also aimed at catching only hatchery fish, which were previously marked through removal of the adipose fin.

Integrated hatchery programs use naturally-spawning fish to get their broodstock, Missildine said. They use broodstock from specific streams and avoid transferring any hatchery fish from one watershed to another. These programs pay close attention to the proportions of hatchery-origin spawners on the spawning grounds, and of natural-origin broodstock used to produce smolts.

Missildine said scientists are using genetics to test wild stocks and determine how well hatcheries are doing.

Michael Milstein, spokesman for NOAA Fisheries in Seattle, said his agency agrees that a lot of work has been done to reform hatcheries, and a lot of progress made in reducing their risks to the recovery of wild salmon and steelhead.

"We're working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to provide the kind of advice and support that will help ensure that additional hatchery fish don't further jeopardize the wild stocks," he said.

Questions about the role of hatcheries arose more than once during the Sept. 12 Council meeting.

In the discussion leading up to approving a letter to the Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force on its draft recommendations on common goals for salmon and steelhead recovery, Washington Council member Guy Norman commented, "I think the question in my mind is, do we have an understanding of what's happened with hatcheries? How do hatcheries fit into the long-term goals?"

And during Fritsch's presentation, Council vice chair Jennifer Anders (Montana) wondered whether there's enough carrying capacity in the basin's rivers and streams to support the new hatchery releases. "At what point is there any analysis of the carrying capacity issue with respect to the increased production?" she asked, and later questioned whether there have been any basinwide reviews.

Fritsch replied that no one evaluates the carrying capacity of each river or stream to accommodate the new fish, but noted each project has undergone its own extensive review, and in some cases, habitat restoration work has been part of the overall artificial production project.

Tony Grover, the Council's fish and wildlife division director, added that an upcoming Independent Scientific Review Panel evaluation of all production facilities will also consider the habitat restoration work done in the same areas. "We'll have a combined review that looks at those together," he said.

The list of new production that can be expected during the next year includes programs for Pacific lamprey and sturgeon.

However, some of the salmon production plans won't immediately translate into new releases. For example, two of them--the Yakama Indian Nation's new Melvin R. Sampson facility and the Mid-Columbia coho reintroduction plan--will use coho from the lower basin and release them in focal areas in the Yakima and Wenatchee river basins. The former will raise up to 700,000 coho, and the latter calls for as many as 1.5 million smolts.

Projects to release new smolts include Crystal Springs, which will add 500,000 new summer Chinook, and eventually as many as 1 million if successful; Walla Walla River basin with 500,000 new spring Chinook; and the Hood River Production Program, with 100,000 additional spring Chinook. The Klickitat Hatchery will also be releasing 800,000 spring Chinook, but the program had produced 600,000 smolts for many years, and recently reduced its production to make room at its facility.

All of the BPA-funded hatchery facilities themselves also underwent a recent evaluation by a Council subcommittee, which developed a proposed asset management strategic plan that will be reviewed by the full Council in October.

The plan includes a comprehensive examination of the 14 Bonneville-funded hatcheries and all of their assets, as well as BPA lands and fish screens. A top priority in the 2014 fish and wildlife program, the plan was developed following a thorough evaluation of the assets acquired through the program, with the intent of protecting and ensuring long-term maintenance of those assets.

"We toured every single one of the hatcheries, took inventory of the condition, and I think we were pleased to find that, by and large, they're in pretty good shape," Idaho Council member Bill Booth told the fish and wildlife committee.

The subcommittee also created interactive maps with detailed information about all 14 artificial production programs, showing hatcheries and acclimation sites, as well as 1,041 fish screens and 240 land parcels that were acquired under the fish and wildlife program. -K.C. Mehaffey

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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