NOAA Releases Final
by Bill Rudolph
In a process that began ten years ago, NOAA Fisheries released Sept. 4 its final EIS on the operation of Mitchell Act hatcheries in the Columbia Basin, and has picked a preferred alternative for reducing their impacts on wild fish. A draft EIS unveiled in 2010 garnered much critical comment, but contained no preferred alternative.
The EIS does not tackle the question of impacts on ESA-listed fish.
Any Columbia Basin hatchery program that affects ESA-listed populations must have a genetic management plan approved by NOAA to guide ESA compliance. Many are completed, others are still in process. Some of these plans have been successfully challenged by wild fish advocates in court, causing fewer hatchery releases in some areas like Oregon's Sandy River and Puget Sound.
Nor does the final EIS contain a cost-benefit analysis. The draft EIS did have some preliminary analysis in that area, which found, in most years, the economic activity produced by harvesting Mitchell Act fish was less than the cost to produce those fish. The analysis in the draft found that production costs were $30.4 million a year, which included MA and other funding resources, and annualized capital costs. Benefits were calculated at nearly $19 million a year. The final EIS says a cost-benefit analysis "is not considered because the focus of this analysis is to compare the alternatives based on an evaluation of key socioeconomic indicators."
Using updated information, the final EIS sports six alternatives that range from no action, to others that call for intermediate performance goals and the preferred one, that calls for stronger performance goals, a term the EIS says would "maintain or promote beneficial effects (benefits) and minimize adverse effects (risks) of hatchery programs on salmon and steelhead populations when compared to baseline conditions ." The EIS said hatcheries that operated under "intermediate performance goals" would "in most cases, reduce the adverse effects (risks) of many hatchery programs on salmon and steelhead populations when compared to baseline conditions."
The preferred option, alternative 6, would increase the natural spawner abundance of all ESA-listed ESUs by 7 percent, according to the EIS, while closing all Mitchell Act hatcheries (alternative 2) would boost abundance by 15 percent. Using other alternatives with intermediate goals would boost abundance by 10 percent to 15 percent.
Mean productivity of listed ESUs would also go up for 15 of the 17 groups under all the alternatives, but the preferred one was estimated to raise productivity of 11 of the 17 ESUs.
Alternative 6 is also the only option that would increase harvest opportunities compared to current actions, or any of the other alternatives studied. The EIS also said that tribal fishing revenues would go up 18 percent with the preferred alternative, and lower river commercial fishermen would get a 14 percent boost, while the total economic benefit would go up 8 percent from the 2010 baseline.
The preferred alternative does not preclude construction of new hatcheries. It also calls for hatchery programs that are part of mitigation agreements be aligned with performance goals, using adaptive management planning to reduce risks in all programs that affect ESA-listed primary and contributing salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia River Basin. About half of the production from Mitchell Act hatcheries is managed under the U.S. v. Oregon process.
Only 35 percent of the 177 hatchery programs in the Columbia Basin, 62 (35 percent) are funded wholly or in part by the federal government under the Mitchell Act, but make up 46 percent of all hatchery production in the basin -- about 140 million smolts a year. More than 70 percent of the programs produce fish for harvest augmentation, about 14 percent for conservation purposes and another 15 percent for both.
NOAA said it will review comments on the final EIS received by Nov. 12 and consider them "for impact" before it issues the record of decision.
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