Juvenile Steelhead

Juvenile steelhead at a hatchery.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission unanimously adopted a policy on April 9 updating the state's hatchery policy that allows for more hatchery production to help feed endangered southern resident killer whales and sets the groundwork to begin work with Native American tribes on a joint state-tribal hatchery policy.

After more than three years of work by staff, public testimony, three revisions and an environmental review, the update replaces the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Hatchery and Fishery Reform Policy adopted in 2009.

The new policy brings key management decisions at state hatcheries back to WDFW, instead of relying on the independent Hatchery Scientific Review Group (HSRG) to guide decisions, such as which stocks are raised, production levels, and the balancing of the risks and benefits brought by the hatchery programs.

The new policy added language about the benefits of hatcheries, set up a structured decision-making process for hatchery production to help managers weigh the risks and benefits of their decisions, and encourages the use of adaptive management to ensure that hatchery program goals are being met.

In prior comments, some environmental groups were critical of the revised policy, saying it abandons the old policy's focus on the importance of conserving wild fish and steps away from the independent science offered through the HSRG. The prior policy had a single purpose "'to advance the conservation and recovery of wild salmon and steelhead by promoting and guiding the implementation of hatchery reform."

The new policy adds language to acknowledge that mitigation and supplementation are also hatchery purposes. The policy now includes as its purpose "to perpetuate salmon and steelhead in accordance with existing mitigation programs and agreements for permanently lost or impaired habitat; and to provide sustainable economic and stability benefits to recreational, commercial and tribal fisheries in Washington State as appropriate."

Ken Warheit, WDFW's director of molecular genetics and fish health told the commission, "Even though it's not explicit in the purpose statement, what this policy is attempting to do is try to strike a balance among the those three purposes—the three tenants in the purpose statement."

Warheit said the new policy emphasizes in several places that decisions must have a scientific basis. "We also emphasize in the policy that there are risks to hatchery production, both ecological and genetic. All those are concepts that are embedded in the HSRG itself, and they are not being ignored."

Commissioner Don McIsaac said the new policy offers a broader purpose statement to give it balance and acknowledges that there are benefits from hatchery production.

He said adding language about the benefits of hatcheries does not equate to an abandonment of the importance of protecting wild fish. He pointed to numerous places in the new policy that emphasize conservation, including a new paragraph that states, "The highest priority policy commitment shall be the conservation of natural resources, including the conservation and recovery of depressed coincident wild salmon and steelhead populations, the maintenance or recovery of wild salmon and steelhead life history diversity, the maintenance of wild populations currently in a healthy condition, the conservation of genetic resources found in hatchery populations, and providing critical ecological benefits such as prey to endangered Southern Resident Orca (SRO) and marine nutrient recycling."

McIsaac noted the new policy brings with it a new risk management procedure for making decisions.

Under the old policy, a decision to produce more salmon to help feed endangered southern resident killer whales would lie with the HSRG instead of with WDFW and the commission, he said. Under the new policy, he said, "All of this is brought in-house. The scientific basis for the risk assessment will be found in one location. Each and every hatchery program will have a hatchery management plan. The director will be delegated to make choices on production in accordance with this policy."

Despite the unanimous vote, some commissioners expressed guarded support.

"I do want to point out that there are reasons why the public has diminished trust perhaps in both the federal and state governments in being able to manage our salmon resources, and that is because they have just been in steady decline, regardless of what we've been trying to do," Commissioner Lorna Smith said prior to the vote. "It's been a real shock to see the really rapid decline of our wild fish populations, and our orca as well."

She said her priority going forward will be to ensure that wild fish are protected and enhanced under the new policy.

Vice Chair Barbara Baker said that the agency has spent a lot of time and money producing salmon and steelhead—at times without thinking about that impact on wild fish. "That was the genesis of the HSRG. We needed an outside and independent scientific review of what we were doing," she said. But she defended taking back that authority under the new policy, saying that the state has learned its lesson, and will now make decisions based in science, with co-managers and under the oversight of NOAA Fisheries.

She said she was not a supporter of hatchery production when she joined the commission four years ago. "I have been convinced, over the years, that there just aren't enough fish for all the demands and the pressure we put on these creatures, and the alternative to thoughtful and scientific-based hatchery production is no fishing," she said, adding that even if the commission is willing to consider banning fishing, it may not help the downward trends in wild salmon returns.

Commissioner Fred Koontz concluded, "At the end of the day, whether it's a step forward or a step backward, and whether it helps wild fish or not, is going to depend on that technical document. It's going to be, not easy," he said. "We have a very difficult job ahead to actually come up with that structured decision-making process and technical document, and to do it in a way that not only goes through [State Environmental Policy Act] but is as inclusive as possible."

Commissioner Jim Anderson said the new policy is an important step forward.

"I think this policy paves the way forward for the department to engage with the tribes in a collaborative, cooperative, co-management framework," Anderson said. "This is important to the tribes. We've had a number of different meetings with them, and we've heard loud and clear their views of the treaty rights, and how it extends not just into harvest and habitat, but also into hatcheries."

Anderson said that work—to develop a joint state-tribal hatchery policy—will require a lot of time and dedication and attention by both the state and the tribes.

"Part of this policy directs the [WDFW] director to move forward quickly with the technical review document. We have about a year to do that," he said.

Once adopted, a new joint state-tribal hatchery policy would provide a single policy for both state and tribal hatcheries, and would supersede the newly adopted state-only hatchery policy.

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K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.