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Discussion Moves Forward
on Implementing Mass Marking

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - March 7, 2003

The author of a new requirement that all hatchery salmon and steelhead be physically marked before release signaled this week he is willing to be flexible in how federal officials carry it out.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., met privately with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams and also discussed the issue with him briefly during a congressional hearing on the agency's proposed FY2004 budget.

Williams told Dicks the agency stands ready to implement the mass marking program for salmonids, which would be required at all federally operated and funded hatcheries, many of which are run by state fisheries agencies in the Northwest. Much of the work will be done at the state level, including the federal Mitchell Act hatcheries on the Columbia River operated by Washington and Oregon and the Columbia River hatcheries operated by Oregon.

Most Northwest hatchery salmon already are marked by having their adipose fins clipped, to help manage fisheries, aid identification by fishermen and facilitate research and data-gathering. But millions of fish are not physically marked, and federal and tribal fisheries officials still have concerns about potential implications of the universal marking requirement for tribal fish allocations, U.S.-Canada salmon treaty conflicts and other problems.

Representatives of federal, state and tribal fisheries agencies, mainly from Washington state, are scheduled to discuss the program and their concerns with Dicks on March 17 in Tacoma.

Dicks wants to get the program going but recognizes it will be "a long-term process" that is going to take money and time, legislative assistant Lesley Turner said Thursday. "We're going to try to get them to do it this year. We'll see," she said. "He's been pushing it for quite a while."

The congressman, who is an avid fishermen, believes physical marking will help the average person identify catchable hatchery fish and "keep them honest," she said. Mortality on fish that are caught and released runs as high as 20 percent, she said. Although Fish and Wildlife Service has not provided figures on how many fish remain unmarked, Turner said about 80 percent to 90 percent of hatchery salmon and steelhead are fin-clipped. "They're doing it already. It's irrefutable that it works."

Last week, Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Region officials expressed concern that no money for the federal agency was included and that the requirement would cost "quite a few" millions of dollars to implement.

If the federal agency needs more equipment for national fish hatchery markings, Dicks will consider securing more funding, Turner said. The requirement adds little to the agency's management costs, she said.

Jim Anderson, executive director of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said the provision came as a surprise, so we're obviously trying figure out what's going on." Anderson, who plans to take part in the meeting, said it would create potential conflicts with current marking of certain coastal hatchery stocks in Northwest Washington in connection with U.S.-Canada salmon treaty conservation efforts. In the ocean, those fish migrate to Alaska and Canadian waters, where selective harvests are not conducted or authorized by any agreement, he said.

Anderson said the coded wire tag system is the backbone of data and harvest information gathering under the treaty. Mass fin clipping would make the Washington fish "fair game" in the ocean and threaten returns of adults to the state. "The only way to ensure survival is to use the wire tags and sample electronically for them," he said.

The requirement also runs counter to agreements between Fish and Wildlife and Northwest tribes with fishing treaty rights. Under those agreements, fish allocated for tribal use as returning adults are not marked.

Dicks said that marking hatchery fish to make them readily distinguishable to sports and commercial fishermen will help reduce losses of endangered wild salmon during selective harvests, assure availability of harvestable stocks and boost salmon recovery efforts. Currently, some hatchery fish are not physically marked and have been implanted with coded wire tags that fishermen must detect using electronic wands.

Improvements to automated technology have made it possible to increase dramatically the number of marked fish, he said. Portable automated marking machines are able to process large numbers of salmon quickly.

The requirement for the Fish and Wildlife Service to implement a mass marking program was included in the FY2003 $397 billion catchall appropriation bill, which was passed by Congress and signed into law last month. Dicks is the ranking Democratic member on the House appropriations panel that funds the Interior Department. Last year, a similar provision passed the House as part of the FY2003 interior appropriations bill, but that bill did not pass the Senate. The recent catchall spending bill combined the final House-Senate compromise versions of the interior and 10 other appropriations bills.

In addition to the marking requirement, the final bill provides $6.6 million in federal funds to the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho to buy more mobile fin-clipping equipment and trailers and to perform mass markings. Most of the money comes from the Pacific Salmon Recovery Fund. Of the total, $2,185,000 will go to Oregon to buy two new and one used mass marking trailers; $1.1 million to Oregon for mass markings at Columbia River hatcheries; and $1,590,000 each to Washington and Idaho to buy new mass-marking trailers.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is a leading advocate of mass marking.

CBB Staff
Discussion Moves Forward on Implementing Mass Marking
Columbia Basin Bulletin, March 7, 2003

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