Over the past 30 years, salmon production at hatcheries operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has been cut nearly in half—from about 275 million releases in 1989 to a low of 145 million in 2017.
State officials say declines were due to both funding reductions and new state and federal hatchery reform policies. According to a WDFW report to the Legislature in 2019, the drop in hatchery-produced fish, along with fewer wild fish, has contributed to a scarcity of prey available for endangered southern resident killer whales.
But the downward trend in hatchery production is changing, as Washington state follows through on a recommendation by its Southern Resident Orca Task Force. As long as broodstock is available and federal permits come through, state, tribal and PUD hatcheries are on track to raise an additional 26 million hatchery salmon annually to help feed the endangered orcas and boost fishing opportunities.
To complement that effort, hatcheries in the Columbia Basin operating under the Mitchell Act will receive $22 million this year—the largest appropriation in five years. Another $35.5 million is allocated to implement the Pacific Salmon Treaty.
That's in addition to $13.4 million already provided by the Washington Legislature in 2019 to increase hatchery production, and $40 million for capital improvements to state hatcheries.
In all, WDFW expects to boost production at its own facilities by 17.1 million salmon—an increase expected to get continued funding, WDFW's hatchery division manager Eric Kinne said. Temporary funding by the state to increase production at tribal and PUD hatcheries brings the total to 26.15 million additional salmon releases each year, he said.
Many improvements have been made since the 1980s to help keep hatchery fish separate from those that spawn naturally. Kinne said part of the hatchery reform effort was to ensure hatchery fish could be differentiated from wild or naturally spawning fish. A lot of production was lost when hatcheries stopped releasing eggs and younger juveniles too small to have their adipose fins clipped, the main method for marking hatchery fish, he said.
Under the state's current plan, the lion's share of added production—18.25 million juvenile releases—will happen in the Puget Sound area. Another 5.9 million releases are planned for the Washington coast. The Columbia Basin, meanwhile, will host less than 2 million additional juvenile salmon produced and released.
Kinne said that's largely because hatcheries in Puget Sound and along the Washington coast already had existing capacity to raise more salmon. Budget reductions in 2008 and 2009 resulted in a lot of production losses in those hatcheries, so they already had space and readiness to ramp up quickly. "The reason we didn't increase more in the Columbia River was really based on capacity," he said. There are some state hatcheries in the lower Columbia that do have space, but they're under tight restrictions due to the Endangered Species Act, he said.
But in addition, many hatcheries in the Columbia Basin are owned and operated by federal agencies or PUDs, built as mitigation for operating hydroelectric dams. With recently approved federal funds, some of those hatcheries may also begin to ramp up production in an effort to benefit orcas.
A Dec. 19 news release from U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) says that the $22 million earmarked for Mitchell Act hatchery activities in Congress' appropriations bill will enable federal agencies to work with states to improve declining salmon runs in the Columbia River system for tribal, commercial and sport fishing, and to provide prey for southern resident killer whales.
Angeline Riesterer, Herrera Beutler's communications director, told NW Fishletter in an email that allocations for Mitchell Act funding had increased slightly over the past five years, from $18.8 million in 2015 to just under $21 million last year. This year's budget represents the first increase in three years. The Mitchell Act funds 22 hatcheries with 60 programs in the Columbia Basin, which release about 40.8 million fish each year, she said.
Congress allocated another $35.5 million to implement the Pacific Salmon Treaty, an agreement with Canada under which the two countries work to manage Pacific salmon stocks "focused on protecting and expanding spawning habitat, increasing hatchery production, and implementing conservation measures to prevent overfishing and maximize production," according to Herrera Beutler's news release.
Kinne—who helps represent Washington state on Pacific Salmon Treaty matters—said those funds could be another source for boosting hatchery productions. He said the Washington Legislature's budget didn't include enough to fund all the proposed hatchery increases, and more funding may be sought in this year's supplemental budget.
Kinne said he also met with PUDs in Washington, inviting them to put together proposals to expand hatchery production above mitigation requirements. Only one—Douglas County PUD's Wells Hatchery—stepped forward, offering to increase its production of summer Chinook by 1 million juveniles a year. He said WDFW asked for $350,000 annually to fund the increase, but the Legislature provided that amount for the biennium, so current plans are to add 500,000 summer Chinook releases each year. The hatchery already raises and releases about 320,000 yearlings and 484,000 subyearling summer Chinook.
That proposal to increase summer Chinook production is now being reviewed by NOAA Fisheries, which recently made the Hatchery and Genetics Management Plan available for public comment.
The plan states that Wells Hatchery summer Chinook are released directly into the Columbia River instead of into tributaries on the Columbia, minimizing potential impact on natural populations. WDFW will evaluate contributions to orca recovery, contributions to fisheries and ecological interaction, including the degree of straying, it said.
NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein said the HGMPs are designed to make sure hatchery fish are not impacting naturally spawning stocks. "It's balancing the production goals with protecting the fitness of wild stocks," he said.
Kinne said throughout the rest of the state, WDFW is more than halfway finished with its NOAA consultations for HGMP permits needed to boost production. Those in rivers with no Endangered Species Act-listed fish do not need a permit.
Other additions to hatchery programs in the Columbia Basin include 1 million fall Chinook releases at Yakama Nation fish hatcheries; 225,000 coho releases from the Beaver Creek Hatchery on the Grays River; and 250,000 coho releases from the Ringold Hatchery on the Kalama River.