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Puget Sound Hatchery Reform
Points to Coming Changes in Columbia Basin

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, May 11, 2004

(photo by Dave Fast) Cle Elum salmon supplementation and research facility. The latest flap over the possibility that the federal government will consider the role of hatchery fish when it determines the ESA status of listed salmon stocks has clouded an issue that the region has already been wrestling with for a number of years -- just how do hatchery stocks fit into the new age of the wild fish recovery?

Since fish hatcheries provide 80 percent or more of the salmon and steelhead returning to Northwest waters, it's likely that they do have adverse affects on some listed stocks in some watersheds. But they also provide the backbone of sports and commercial fisheries. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates these fisheries are worth more than $1 billion to the state's economy. More than half ($56 million in the 1999-01 biennium) of WDFW's fish program budget pays for hatchery operations.

Reform efforts in both Puget Sound and the Columbia Basin were initiated by congressional action, with some of the same players, like consultant Lars Mobrand, whose firm Mobrand Biometrics is involved in both areas. He chairs a scientific panel that developed a framework for the Puget Sound reform effort and provides technical coordination for the Columbia Basin evaluation which is being led by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

Mobrand was part of an April public relations blitz when the latest results of the four-year Puget Sound effort were released just a couple of weeks ago. The report included more than 1,000 recommendations (300 have already been implemented, they say) to improve operations.

"There are hatchery reform efforts in other parts of the country," said Mobrand, "but I know of none with the vision for the future and clearly described actions for immediate change, change that is already underway. This is a new era of hatchery management."

The $28-million effort to reform about a hundred fish hatcheries in Puget Sound and coastal Washington began with a 1999 mandate with two basic policy directions, to reform the facilities to help recover naturally spawning stocks and support sustainable fisheries. The group of scientists assembled to develop a framework agreed that these facilities could be managed to supplement small wild populations.

But that's still an issue that's still being hotly debated in the Columbia Basin, where an attempt to evaluate more than 150 hatcheries began in 1997 when Congress directed the NWPCC to assess current operations with special emphasis developing cost-effective operations, and a report outlining a series of potential reforms and future evaluations was released in April, 1999.

The report focused on developing hatchery operations that reduced possible harmful effects on wild fish, and it took a softer line than its own science panel, acknowledging uncertainty over the value of supplementing wild stocks with hatchery fish. The panel of independent scientists charged with assisting the council took a more skeptical view than the final report or the position of the Puget Sound group. They went on record to say that the value of supplementation is unknown, and benefits uncertain.

Conflicting Mandates

"The current goals and objectives of some hatchery programs don't make sense," said Bruce Suzumoto, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council staffer charged with leading the latest phase of the basin review. "There are too many conflicting mandates," he said, pointing out that some hatcheries were funded to mitigate dam and habitat losses, while others were charged with providing harvest opportunities for ocean fisheries, and now, tribal hatcheries have been funded to boost their own fish stocks.

Suzumoto said some hatchery operations were developed by state mandates, others through the US v. Oregon process, where ongoing Columbia Basin tribal harvest issues are vetted, and now NOAA Fisheries is developing a management plan to minimize adverse genetic effects of hatchery fish on the stocks it is charged with recovering under the mandate of the ESA.

Suzumoto agrees that the region needs to get together to discuss ways to operate hatcheries while minimizing risks to ESA-listed salmon. To that end, the basin hatchery review has surveyed operations to provide data for NOAA Fisheries, which is developing a "cumulative effects" analysis of hatcheries on the listed stocks throughout the Columbia Basin.

But council biologist Suzumoto pointed out that policy conflicts are likely to become even more visible as the subbasin planning process starts looking at individual hatchery operations. He said the hatchery goals developed by each watershed group won't necessarily jibe with the traditional goals of the agencies who have operated them.

The $1.3 million spent so far on the basin-wide evaluation is far less than what is needed to assess the overall impacts of hatcheries on harvest policies and habitat as well, Suzumoto said.

However, judging from comments by state agencies and tribes, setting goals for basin hatcheries won't be easy. Last fall, after the release of the draft basin-level report that found 80 percent of the "segregated" hatchery programs (where only returning hatchery fish are used for broodstock) in the basin contributed more than 5 percent of the naturally spawning hatchery fish to neighboring wild stocks, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife pointed out that "setting goals consistent with current biological, economic and cultural and legal requirements is not a simple task, as these values are rarely in agreement."

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission criticized the APRE [Artificial Production Review and Evaluation] draft for focusing "on elements of animal husbandry rather than on meeting Columbia Basin goals." They also pointed out that the harvest discussion was "incomplete" and lacked a tribal perspective on how their fisheries are managed.

CRITFC also took issue with the approach in the Puget Sound review "being fostered" on the Columbia system. "The two areas have different constraints on population health, and the approaches proposed in the Puget Sound may not work on the Columbia River system. From the Commission's perspective, the use of the hatchery-reared salmon to simply feed various fisheries will reduce the resources available for using hatcheries to restore naturally spawning stocks."

CRITFC said mass marking of hatchery steelhead has been going on for more than 20 years without showing any benefits or conservation value to naturally spawning stocks. The tribes said that the original hatchery programs were designed to feed ocean and lower Columbia non-Indian fisheries, but that objective has changed to provide most benefits to sports fisheries where hatchery fish marked by a clipped adipose fin are targeted for harvest. But they say the APRE draft doesn't discuss mortality associated with unmarked fish, presumably wild ESA-listed stocks, that are released in those fisheries.

BPA weighed in on the Puget Sound v. Columbia Basin issue as well, suggesting that the APRE draft "might be improved" by better "delineation" between the objectives of the Puget Sound review process and the APRE objectives. Noting that the APRE review was more than five years' late, they said Congress gave a "substantively different" mandate for the basin's review, which included a request for developing a cost-effective hatchery policy. Congress' request for a recommendation of a coordinated hatchery policy, or how to obtain one, also hasn't been completed, said BPA.

But a new policy eventually blessed by NOAA Fisheries is the ultimate goal and it's likely to lead to a major overhaul of the basin's traditional hatchery operations, though some improvements are already in the works.

The Puget Sound reform effort has already led to the end of some hatchery programs, and others have been modified to reflect a better understanding of how hatcheries fit into the ecosystem. To settle disputes among co-managers over other contentious issues, a process has been developed to help resolve these differences.

NOAA regional administrator Bob Lohn has endorsed the Puget Sound effort, calling it a model for hatchery reform and cooperative fishery management. His agency is still working to complete the hatchery and genetic plans for Columbia Basin facilities, beginning a third round of workshops in late March.

Bill Rudolph
Puget Sound Hatchery Reform Points to Coming Changes in Columbia Basin
NW Fishletter, May 11, 2004

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