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Overhaul Proposed in State's Hatchery Programs

by Craig Welch
Seattle Times - February 20, 2002

Managers of Washington's troubled fish hatcheries must overhaul how they do business in order to protect dwindling wild fish, a panel of scientists announced yesterday.

Set up by Congress to rethink hatcheries and their effects on endangered salmon and steelhead runs, the panel reviewed 23 of Washington's 100 facilities.

It recommended changes as dramatic as permanently closing one hatchery to altering the number and timing of fish releases at others.

While proposals for revamping hatcheries have come and gone, officials contend this one has more staying power.

"I'm committing my agency to implementation of this," said Jeff Koenings, director of the state Fish and Wildlife Department.

Hatcheries long have been a staple of Washington's salmon stocks, accounting for more than 75 percent of all coho and chinook harvested and nearly 90 percent of the steelhead harvest.

But in the past decade, experts have shown some hatcheries to be an expensive crutch.

Hatchery fish can overtax food supply and alter migratory timing for wild fish, the experts say. Hatchery fish allow for higher harvest rates that in turn lead to more accidental killings of native species.

In some cases, the hatchery facility desecrates habitat and complicates migratory patterns.

Among the panel's central recommendations:

In one case, on McAllister Creek in the Nisqually basin, the committee recommended permanently closing a hatchery, which ultimately would eliminate production of 200,000 or more chinook.

The recommendations were unveiled at a Seattle news conference in which Billy Frank, chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and Democrats Gov. Gary Locke, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks, said they would all push to make the changes.

"We have to make the investments to modify our hatcheries both operationally and physically," Locke said.

While Locke's staff and other state officials admit individual fixes will prove controversial, they said the pressure for wholesale change was mounting.

Previous attempts at change have met with resistance amid the swirling sea of interest groups in the state's $1 billion-a-year salmon industry. And even within this study, there is some disagreement on how to proceed.

"The devil's in the details especially when it comes to implementing these things," said Kurt Beardslee with Washington Trout, an environmental group. Beardslee hadn't seen the 163-page report.

"Are the recommendations mandatory? Do we cut off funding if they're not adopted? That's the kind of stuff I need to see."

Jim Lichatowich, a fisheries biologist and one of the earliest to sound the alarm over hatcheries in Washington state, agreed.

In the past, "hatchery programs have been defensive. They've resisted change and even resisted honest evaluation," Lichatowich said. "They have a long history of being a sacred cow to agencies."

But even some of the most vocal skeptics see reason for hope.

A hatchery-reform program being developed by the Northwest Power Planning Council, for the Columbia River, seems to have more teeth than in the past, Lichatowich said. Oregon is developing new hatchery policies based on scientific review.

And Lichatowich has respect for the nine scientists on this panel.

"I do have to say there seems to be something new in the air right now," he said.

Still, "if the whole thing fizzled and died and never went anywhere, it really wouldn't surprise me," he said.

"Bureaucracy has a way of avoiding change even while sounding like it's making some."

Craig Welch
Overhaul Proposed in State's Hatchery Programs
Seattle Times, February 20, 2002

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