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Oregon Should Convert Some Fish Hatcheries to Research

by Jim Myron
Opinion, Capital Press - May 10, 2002

Gov. John Kitzhaber has taken the bold action of closing three coastal fish hatcheries as part of the additional cuts that were required to bring the state's budget into balance. This move was taken when it became clear that the Oregon Legislature did not have the political will to close any hatcheries, and that the alternative was even further cuts to education and social services. While the Legislature may still find a way to thwart the will of the governor and keep all of Oregon's hatcheries open, the day of reckoning for fish hatcheries and their supporters is clearly at hand.

Anyone who has studied the hatchery issue with an open mind would have to conclude that the state hatchery system, as operated, is part of the problem for wild fish, not part of the solution. Reports in recent years from the National Research Council, the Independent Multidisciplinary Science Team, the Independent Scientific Advisory Board and others have concluded that the hatchery system is in need of major reform. This background of studies on the issue provides Oregon with a golden opportunity to begin fixing the hatchery problem, and the governor has taken advantage of this opportunity.

Oregon operates 34 fish hatcheries, 15 remote rearing/fish facilities and provides direct financial assistance for 25 salmon trout enhancement program facilities, in addition to supporting the Clatsop Economic Development Commission facilities in Astoria and the Port of Newport's Yaquina Bay acclimation facility. Collectively, these facilities release about 53 million salmon, steelhead and trout into Oregon waters each year. Closing the Salmon River, Trask River and Cedar Creek hatcheries would reduce this production to approximately 50 million fish.

The operational costs of the state hatchery program exceed $20 million annually. State and federal taxpayers pay about 85 percent of the costs and angling license fees cover the remainder. This public expenditure for the hatchery program represents a major public subsidy, primarily to benefit recreational and commercial fishing interests.

In addition to the annual operating costs, Oregon has historically deferred maintenance at state hatcheries due to lack of available funding. Depending upon the source of the information, the bill for this deferred maintenance ranges from $30 million to $100 million. As a result of direction by the state Legislature, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife must prepare a report on this problem. By later this year, the real scope of this issue should be known.

It seems obvious that the state's hatchery program cannot be sustained at current levels without a major infusion of capital in the near term and much larger annual budgets for the foreseeable future. A better solution would be to reduce and restructure the hatchery program to make it sustainable, economically and environmentally, and to encourage the restoration of naturally spawning wild fish to support future fisheries.

There is a future for hatcheries in Oregon, but that future looks much different from the present hatchery system. Rather than production hatcheries scattered across the landscape, whose only goal is to provide fish for consumptive use, hatchery/harvest programs should be separated from wild fish populations and limited to areas where harv3st can be carefully controlled to eliminate adverse impacts to wild fish. Examples of a program where this may be working are the select area fisheries in Young's Bay near Astoria.

Oregon should convert some of its hatcheries to research facilities to help determine what role, if any, hatcheries might be able to play in the restoration of naturally spawning populations of wild fish. These programs must be operated as carefully controlled scientific experiments with sufficient monitoring and evaluation to determine their effectiveness.

Gov. Kitzhaber has shown his political courage by providing some much-needed leadership on this issue. closing deteriorated hatcheries that the state doesn't have the money to maintain in the first place makes good fiscal sense, as well as making sense from a biological perspective.

Restructuring the remaining hatchery program based upon a new vision for the future of hatcheries in Oregon will take time, but it's an effort that should begin now if Oregon is to have wild salmon and steelhead for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.

Jim Myron is conservation director for Oregon Trout in Portland
Oregon Should Convert Some Fish Hatcheries to Research
Capital Press - May 10, 2002

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