Salmon Caught in Cash Squeezeby Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 12, 2002
Columbia Basin hatchery runs may be cut back to save money
GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- Just when the Pacific Ocean is producing the most bountiful returns of salmon to the Columbia Basin in years, hatchery managers are contemplating cutting back or even closing some of their facilities.
That's because $11.4 million in federal funding that covers 18 state and federal hatcheries in Oregon and Washington, known as Mitchell Act funding, has not increased since 1998. The funding has not kept up with operating costs.
The dilemma comes as the debate over the role of hatcheries in rebuilding the Northwest's salmon runs is raging.
Sport and commercial fishermen want the current bountiful hatchery chinook returns to keep cash registers ringing. Indian tribes want greater use of hatchery fish to restore wiped out wild runs and boost harvests.
And environmentalists want hatchery production curtailed to give a boost to wild fish.
"Each time you cut, you're cutting into the interests of several constituencies," such as Indian tribes, sport fishermen and commercial fishermen, said Bob Smith, who administers the federal hatchery funds for NMFS. "At some point you lose critical mass."
The Mitchell Act was enacted by Congress in 1938 to counter the effects of hydroelectric dams that blocked or flooded more than half the spawning habitat in the Columbia Basin.
Built in the 1950s, the hatcheries account for 60 million baby salmon a year out of the total of the 150 million released in the basin.
"We've kind of pinched every penny we have," said Rob Jones of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees Mitchell Act funding.
"Level funding has not kept up with inflation, the cost of fish food, salaries. Energy costs the last couple years have skyrocketed," Jones said.
State and federal hatchery mangers will gather in Portland April 30 to go over potential cuts, and are dreading the prospect of having to repeat what they went through in 1995, when they closed four hatcheries to cope with budget cuts.
Current alternatives include closing hatcheries, cutting salmon smolt production by the millions, and eliminating fin clipping, which allows commercial fishermen and anglers to identify hatchery fish so that wild fish can be released unharmed.
Sport and commercial fishermen and NMFS are all determined to see the continuation of fish clipping, which costs $1 million a year, so closing hatcheries appears to be certain without a funding boost sought by the Northwest delegation to Congress.
"We're down to the bare bones, so are we going to break the bone or what?" asked Liz Hamilton, director of the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association. "You need mass marking in order to have selective fisheries. Otherwise, we're going back to the dark days of quota fishing, and none of us wants to go there."
The first programs to go will likely be fish intended for commercial and recreational harvest, in order to continue breeding fish for restoring depleted wild runs and meeting treaty obligations to Indian tribes, said Rich Johnson, who oversees four hatcheries for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
He is already looking at cutting spring chinook production in half -- down to 1.2 million fish -- at two of them, Carson and White Salmon.
Trent Stickell, chief of fish propagation for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, has already had to close three state-funded hatcheries due to budget cuts, and expects some federally funded hatcheries will have to close as well.
"These reductions are going to severely reduce these recreational harvest opportunities as well as hinder, I think, recovery of these stocks that are in trouble," he said.
Bill Bakke, director of the Native Fish Society, predicted this was only the beginning of increasing pressure to close fish hatcheries, due to the high cost of producing fish, sometimes in excess of the economic benefits.
"This should be a wake-up call for people," Bakke said. "If we don't take care of our wild runs and we lose hatcheries or the fish are infected by disease or genetic problems, all of a sudden we're out of fish."
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