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New Regulation Calls for Marking All Federal Hatchery Fish

by Bill Bakke
NW Fishletter, March 21, 2003

Representative Norm Dicks (D-WA) has been successful in his effort to require the marking of all fish reared in federal hatcheries or funded by federal money. The new regulation is contained in the Interior Department's appropriations bill signed by President Bush in February.

"We simply must adopt new and more comprehensive strategies such as this one to assure viable populations of fish available for harvesting, while protecting wild fish," Dicks said in a recent press release.

Marked hatchery fish, usually identified by a clipped adipose fin near the tail on the dorsal side of the fish, make them easy to spot when wild fish are off limits to harvest, usually because the wild ones are protected under the ESA.

Most opposition to this marking requirement comes from regional Indian tribes, according to Dicks' staffer Bryan McConaughy. The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission says, unlike the state, they have cut back on their harvest "so there will be a fish resource for future generations." They also say, "It is questionable to mass mark all production... Yet, the current approach is to do so, even in areas where healthy stocks exist and are not limiting access to hatchery returns."

The commission also said it would cost too much at a time when funds are in short supply, and would interfere with international agreements on salmon management. Though they did not provide comments in support of mass marking, they said, "The tribes do not oppose mass marking. We never have. We simply advocate doing it right...."

Others involved in fish management agreed. USFWS' Lee Hillwig, who met with Dicks, said the fish management agencies recognize mass marking is coming and everyone is committed to make it work though costs could be substantial. If the chinook releases from Coleman and Spring Creek hatcheries are to be marked, seven or eight new marking trailers would be needed at a cost of $800,000 each. If the fish are to be coded-wire-tagged, the expense would be even more. The Spring Creek hatchery, just upstream from Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, releases 15 million fall chinook each year.

NOAA Fisheries spokesman Rob Jones said that all yearling hatchery releases--spring chinook and steelhead from Mitchell Act hatcheries on the lower Columbia--are marked now with by clipped adipose fins. But some coho, provided to the tribes for recovery work, are not marked, along with fall chinook.

Jones, who met with Dicks last Monday, said the fish management agencies "...agreed that we shouldn't mark for the sake of marking. We need to first figure out what needs to be marked to achieve the coastwide salmon harvest and conservation needs."

Jones did say that all chinook in 42 hatchery programs in Puget Sound are now 100 percent marked. "This is another step in the process to improve management of the fish for harvest and conservation."

Jones said, for a harvest program "we need an external mark." But some fisheries like lower Columbia River terminal areas don't need marked fish because those harvest areas are designed to avoid wild salmon.

The NOAA spokesman also said more research is needed to determine the mortality associated with a selective fishery where unmarked wild fish are released. Jones noted that the expected mortality rate of spring chinook in 40-degree water is lower than for summer steelhead in 70-degree water. So, the mortality rates can vary, depending on encounter rates, multiple captures, environmental conditions and maturity of the fish.

Conservation groups, including Washington Trout, Native Fish Society, National Audubon Society, and the Wild Steelhead Coalition supported Dicks' efforts. "For the most part," they said in written comments, "it is not possible to manage salmon and steelhead fisheries in ways that assure harmful impacts to non-target stocks remain below critical threshold levels without mass marking of hatchery salmon and steelhead."

These groups also supported marking in order to distinguish hatchery fish in natural spawning populations. They said the presence of first-generation hatchery-origin fish on spawning grounds at levels greater than 10 percent is expected to reduce fitness of naturally spawning salmon and steelhead and impede recovery efforts.

Biologist Jim Lichatowich, author of Salmon Without Rivers, said he favored the mass marking strategy, but noted two big problems associated with it. "One is the actual mortality on released wild fish that are caught while taking hatchery fish," he said. "The other is compatibility with the Pacific Salmon Treaty and effective harvest management for salmon."

"I have some problems with this legislation if it provides 'no exceptions,'" said Don Campton, USFWS research biologist. "For example, in conservation or research hatchery programs, it may be highly undesirable to harvest hatchery-origin fish if returning adults are necessary for achieving a conservation or research goal."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates or funds 22 hatchery programs in Oregon and Washington, releasing 60.8 million unmarked salmon and steelhead annually. In the Columbia River 22.8 million unmarked salmonids are released, mostly fall chinook, but coho, summer steelhead and spring chinook make up a large share of unmarked fish. Most of the unmarked summer steelhead, coho, and spring chinook are provided to the tribes. These are called "recovery fish."

The new requirement has BPA fish and wildlife folks scratching their heads as well, wondering if they must comply. The power agency spends millions every year to fund several tribal hatcheries in the Columbia Basin. Some of the fish released from these facilities are not currently marked.

Bill Bakke
New Regulation Calls for Marking All Federal Hatchery Fish
NW Fishletter, March 21, 2003

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