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Hatchery Cutbacks Could Mean
Fewer Northwest Steelhead

Nate Poppino
Times News, September 17, 2007

HAGERMAN - An Idaho fish hatchery that helps replace thousands of steelhead killed by the presence of four dams in the lower Snake River is seeing its production hurt by declining spring levels in the Thousand Springs area.

That means the Hagerman National Fish Hatchery, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will have to cut back by about 7 percent the number of steelhead smolts it places in the Salmon River, said hatchery Project Leader Bryan Kenworthy.

The cutback, translating to perhaps 100 fewer adult fish returning to the Pacific Northwest, is but a fraction of the 55,100 steelhead Hagerman and the other hatcheries in the Lower Snake River Compensation Plan strive to provide every year. But Kenworthy's water supply, on the decline for years now, is an indicator of future troubles.

The clear, cold spring water that runs out of the walls of the Snake River Canyon is ideal for fish-rearing, and the Thousand Springs stretch of the river has attracted both private companies and public entities that raise trout, sturgeon and other species.

The springs are fed by the massive Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, the target of a plan recently adopted by the state of Idaho in an attempt to stabilize its levels. To companies such as Clear Springs Foods of Buhl, losing part of a water right means less fish to sell. To the federal fish hatchery, however, less water means fewer fish for sportsmen and residents of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and even Alaska to enjoy.

"We see it as providing a product for the citizens of the Northwest," Kenworthy said.

It takes work to breed fish that can survive the 900-mile swim to the Pacific Ocean and return to the Columbia and Snake rivers a couple of years later. Kenworthy aims to provide 13,600 adult fish; doing so at the moment requires releasing 1.45 million smolts. The return rate, slightly less than 1 percent, is actually a reasonable one for his type of program.

Kenworthy estimates he'll have to cut back by 100,000 smolts soon. That comes after the Hagerman facility already increased production once to make up for a 160,000-smolt loss at the nearby state-run Magic Valley Fish Hatchery, said Scott Marshall, Fish and Wildlife's program manager for the Lower Snake plan.

In the current year of good fish returns, the loss isn't that great, Marshall said. But it will be felt in years when fewer fish return from the ocean, and the long-term picture for the canyon springs isn't great.

"It could become a huge issue," Marshall said, noting the economic effects his fish have on fisheries around the region.

Fish and Wildlife for now has chosen to participate in the aquifer plan, hoping to stabilize and repair its water rights. And Kenworthy said he's pursuing some in-house steps, including money to possibly re-plumb one spring or rent springwater from another water user.

But the agency is also urging Idaho to provide some short-term relief until a long-term fix is in place, and should the situation continue to degrade, federal officials could still decide to file a water delivery call.

"What we've said is we're willing to be patient," Marshall said.

Related Pages:
Obama Administration Pledges to Back Salmon Plan by Nate Poppin, The Times-News, 9/15/9

Nate Poppino
Hatchery Cutbacks Could Mean Fewer Northwest Steelhead
Times News, September 17, 2007

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