Panel of Scientists Urges
by Craig Welch
OLYMPIA -- Reforming Washington state's fish-hatchery system to support dwindling salmon runs and a $1 billion-a-year fishing industry is such a messy task that scientists empowered by Congress have recommended more than 500 changes to individual hatcheries.
Yesterday, a scientific panel, which spent three years visiting and evaluating more than 100 of the salmon and steelhead hatcheries in coastal Washington and Puget Sound, offered new proposals to clean up operation of central Sound hatcheries that produce everything from kokanee to sockeye.
But what the panel encountered offers a lesson in how tricky overhauling the machinery of fish production can be — especially in Washington, which operates the world's largest fish-hatchery system.
For example, spring chinook on the North Fork of the Nooksack River now depend for their survival on hatcheries. But some of those hatchery fish stray into the river's south fork and threaten another genetically unique salmon run.
On the Green River, a century-old hatchery produces plenty of fall chinook for fishing, but those fish are competing with wild salmon for habitat and may be eating other yearling coho, chum and native chinook.
And fish raised at a hatchery in South Puget Sound have helped bring White River chinook back from the brink of extinction. But some fear those fish may ultimately adapt to the wrong watershed.
"You have many hatchery programs whose purpose is not immediately apparent, some exist solely for the benefit of harvest even though no one is fishing there, and some are producing fish in areas where the habitat is so bad it can't even support them all," said Barbara Cairns, executive director of Long Live the Kings.
Her nonprofit group heads reform efforts that began in 2000 with the so-called Hatchery Scientific Review Group, a panel of scientists with doctorates from tribes, federal agencies and even British Columbia. Coming on the heels of the March 1999 listings of Puget Sound chinook and Hood Canal summer chum under the Endangered Species Act, the group was charged with ensuring that science came first when advising governments how to revamp the region's hatcheries.
Few dispute the quality of the science behind the team's reports: "It's great stuff, and we intend to use it," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency that oversees salmon recovery.
But at stake is a system that supports thousands of jobs, produces 100 million salmon and steelhead every year, and in some cases may be all that stands between a fish run and extinction. Nearly 75 percent of salmon caught in Puget Sound are reared in hatcheries; 90 percent of Columbia River salmon are hatchery-produced.
"It is the cash flow in a lot of our rural communities," said Jeff Koenings, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In addition, hatcheries have been known to pose barriers to upstream fish migration, some actually suck wild fish in with intake valves, and others may release the wrong fish into a particular stretch of water. Often, there are political or economic arguments made for the status quo — even when it doesn't make sense scientifically.
"Too often, we've seen hatcheries that were resistant to change," said Don Campton, a fish geneticist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Previous recommendations from other scientists — such as monitoring the success of each hatchery — often went unheeded. But, Cairns said, "it's the first time you've ever had a group working this carefully and this systematically."
Despite budget deficits in Congress, and a state swimming in red ink, this project hasn't lacked for money. Gov. Gary Locke yesterday said he'd requested $7 million over the next two years, and so far both the Democrat-led House and Republican-backed Senate budgets include the money.
But the hard decisions are yet to come. By 2004, the science panel will recommend ways to ensure its proposals are instituted by the various governments that run hatcheries. Those changes will take years and cost millions.
"Some will require closing a hatchery," Cairns said. "Some will require identifying new water sources, or physical changes to the hatcheries themselves. And there still is enormous uncertainty."
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