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NW Fishletter #390 February 4, 2019

[3] WDFW Seeks $6.4 Million For New Hatchery Salmon For Orcas

With the goal of producing more fish for endangered orcas, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife raised 7 million additional hatchery salmon in 2018 to release this year in the Columbia River, Puget Sound and tributaries to Washington's coast.

And if state lawmakers agree, this boost in hatchery production is just the beginning.

In a Jan. 7 proposal to the state Legislature, the agency is asking for $6.4 million in the 2019-2021 budget to raise and release nearly 24.2 million additional Chinook, coho and chum at 21 state hatcheries from now through 2021.

After decades of decreasing hatchery production prompted by hatchery reforms and a lack of funding, the plight of southern resident killer whales is reversing that trend.

According to the report, total production at state hatcheries dropped from about 275 million salmon and steelhead in 1989 to about 145 million in 2017.

Fish and Wildlife's plan would increase those numbers to more than 150 million juveniles in 2020. And a new policy adopted by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in September seeks to boost Chinook production by 50 million additional smolts.


Hatchery production by region 1989-2019. Source: WDFW

The added 7 million juvenile Chinook and coho now being raised at 17 state hatcheries includes 900,000 more spring Chinook at the Lewis River Hatchery for release in the Columbia Basin. If the Legislature appropriates more funding for the 2019-2020 biennium, hatcheries at Beaver Creek, Lyons Ferry, Kalama and Ringold will join Lewis River to raise a total of 2.1 million Chinook and 675,000 coho to add to Columbia River hatchery releases at a projected cost of nearly $1.5 million.

The proposed ramp-up in operations is even greater in Puget Sound, where the agency has plans to raise an additional 11.5 million juvenile salmon, and on the Washington coast where 9.9 million juvenile salmon would be added.

The proposal to rear more hatchery salmon includes only state facilities and a few that are co-managed with tribes, and does not include the potential to increase production at hatcheries operated by Oregon, federal agencies, tribes or public utilities.

Scientists say a lack of available prey is one reason why this population of orcas is struggling to survive. Unlike the transient killer whales in the Pacific Ocean that prey on seals and sea lions, the three pods of whales that frequent the Puget Sound area rely almost solely on salmon, particularly Chinook, which make up 80 to 90 percent of their diet. They also consume coho and chum during certain times of the year. WDFW's three-year proposal would boost juvenile Chinook production by 15.7 million, chum by 5.5 million and coho by nearly 3 million juvenile fish.

Last spring, when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order to help the southern resident population, the Legislature provided funds to help WDFW carry out the order's directives to take immediate actions to help the whales. An $837,000 appropriation from the general fund was earmarked for increasing hatchery production, which included identifying "within hatchery standards and endangered species act constraints" how to best increase production to most benefit the needs of orcas. The hatcheries and species earmarked for increased production were selected after a close examination of the salmon stocks the orcas prefer, combined with a look at when salmon migration coincides with the migratory patterns of the orcas.

Working with NOAA Fisheries, the agency produced a report last summer determining which stocks of Chinook are most important to the whales' recovery. Fall Chinook from both the northern and southern Puget Sound stocks were deemed their top priority, followed by lower Columbia River and Straight of Georgia fall Chinook.

The agency also worked with Inslee's Southern Resident Orca Task Force, which in November issued three dozen recommendations to offer immediate help to the whales, including significantly increasing hatchery production "consistent with sustainable fisheries and stock management, available habitat, recovery plans and the Endangered Species Act."

But even before the task force recommendation, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted a policy statement in September that proposed increasing hatchery Chinook production by 50 million smolts above 2018 levels, including 30 million in Puget Sound and 20 million in the Columbia Basin.

WDFW, in its proposal to the Legislature, stressed that increases in hatchery production should occur in conjunction with more habitat protection and restoration so both hatchery and wild fish can be successful. It should have minimal effects on natural stocks, and be monitored closely, the report says.

In order to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the agency found places where production could be increased with the least impact to natural stocks, and where hatchery production could be boosted within the scope of existing Endangered Species Act permits, the report says.

For facilities where increased production is not included in existing Endangered Species Act permits, the agency has initiated consultation with federal agencies to discuss that potential. The state agency says it plans to incorporate hatchery reform measures in its expanded programs, and monitor the proportion of hatchery fish found on spawning grounds.

Inslee, in his proposed 2019-2021 budget includes $6.35 million to increase hatchery production, along with $70 million for hatchery renovations, and $1 million so the agency can develop a master plan on hatchery infrastructure. The agency's funding request includes $381,660 for a pilot study on how to improve smolt-to-adult survival rates, Dunlop said. -K.C. Mehaffey

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