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NOAA Fisheries Working on Several Hatchery Policy Fronts

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - January 31, 2003

The report card on Northwest salmon and steelhead hatcheries is that they are doing an adequate job of providing fish to catch and preserving gene pools, but when it comes to hatcheries' ability to increase production in watersheds, the jury is still out, according to Rob Jones, NOAA Fisheries Hatchery and Inland Programs branch chief.

He told a group meeting to design an Oregon hatchery policy this week that hatcheries produce fish to support fisheries that have both an economic and a cultural value, and in some places there wouldn't be any salmon or steelhead if not for hatcheries. However, hatcheries can also impact native fish.

"Hatcheries have accomplished quite a bit, but with some cost to wild fish," Jones said. The presence of hatchery fish have sometimes in the past led to excessive harvest rates; they compete for food; they typically "mine" wild fish for broodstock; their presence can encourage predators; and hatcheries often block natural fish passage to spawning areas beyond the hatchery, he said.

It's only been in the last 15 years that hatcheries have tried to help sustain populations of salmon, but he said NOAA Fisheries still considers hatcheries designed to increase fish in a watershed as experimental.

NOAA Fisheries is in the process of updating its 1992 artificial propagation policy, while it also is working on other issues, such as habitat protection, sustainable fisheries and federal Endangered Species Act listings. Hatchery management relates to these, Jones said.

"We're working on similar issues in similar ways and, thankfully, at a similar time," Jones told the group, which by March plans to propose to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission general rules and regulations to guide Oregon hatchery management in the future. That policy is to be guided by Oregon's overarching Native Fish Conservation Policy, which the Commission approved late last year.

He said NOAA is also working on several other related issue papers. One is a hatchery listing policy, which is an articulation of how hatcheries play a role in listing species as endangered. A second is a hatchery guidance paper designed to help guide the day to day operations at hatcheries, which is very similar to what the Oregon group is planning.

"The timing is good," Jones said. "What they call a hatchery policy is our guidance policy." NOAA Fisheries has been working with Oregon, Washington, Idaho and tribes on the guidance policy since November. Whether for catch or conservation hatcheries, that includes the design and operations of hatcheries to make sure that conservation is built into practices, which is what Oregon is doing now, he said.

"Whether it affects ESA listed fish or not, what we're really talking about is good sound hatchery management policy," Jones said. "We need to provide tools to make sure the conservation of natural populations is incorporated into the hatchery policy." That includes sustainability into the future and fulfilling needs of society, such as treaty, commercial and sport fishing, he added.

Hatchery issues include broodstock management, setting production goals (it's not always best to produce as much as a hatchery can, he said), managing adult returns, managing straying, performance measurement and the duration of a hatchery program (what to do when a hatchery meets its goals?).

The NOAA Fisheries hatchery guidance document, he said, should:

"Hatcheries are not a substitute for self-sustaining populations," Jones said. "If there are lots of fish coming back to hatcheries, but none in the stream, we haven't met our goal."

He declined to say when the guidance document will be released for public comment. "Our next step is to produce a working draft that we can share with the expert managers," Jones said. "The idea is to build a document that we can release for public input."

Related Sites:
NOAA Fisheries Northwest:

Mike O'Bryant
NOAA Fisheries Working on Several Hatchery Policy Fronts
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 31, 2003

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