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Council Seeks Comment on
Columbia Basin Hatchery Report

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 17, 2003

A draft report released for public comment this week by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council describes in broad terms strengths and weaknesses of a Columbia River basin hatchery network developed over the past century, and suggests it is time for some changes.

It is hoped that those public comments will help shape hatchery policies aimed at meeting current social and recovery needs.

The document is critical of the system in many regards -- saying that numerous programs lack clearly stated goals, or have goals that aren't consistent with prevailing social and conservation priorities.

Are hatchery operations doing enough to limit the impacts they have on wild, and in many cases federally protected, fish? Should goals be shifted to put less emphasis on producing salmon for commercial harvest?

Those are two of the many questions that the draft Artificial Production Review and Evaluation says need to be asked and answered by the region.

"The results of the APRE indicate that reform is essential for the hatchery system within the Columbia River Basin," the report concludes.

The APRE comes in response to a request from Congress for a review of all federally funded hatchery programs in the Columbia River Basin. According to the draft's executive summary, the goal is to develop coordinated policies for the use of artificial production in the basin. It reviews operation of hatcheries supported by non-federal funds as well.

The APRE evaluates 227 individual hatchery programs -- each focused on producing a particular stock.

The document identifies the espoused purpose of each program and judges how close the program comes to bringing that benefit, and what risk it poses to naturally producing fish populations.

The report has been produced over the past year and a half under the guidance of project coordinator Bruce Suzumoto of the Council staff, who worked with a panel of production experts and hatchery managers. Lead authors were Lars Mobran and Chip McConnaha, both of Mobrand Biometrics. The project has been funded through the Council's fish and wildlife program -- $870,000 for the basinwide report and program reports and $420,000 to develop draft Hatchery Genetic Management Plans required for the programs under the Endangered Species Act.

Public comments on the draft will now be accepted for 45 days.

"We're going to be putting out a report to Congress with recommendations," at the end of the process, Suzumoto said. An "issue paper" will also be developed to chart a course for implementing hatchery reforms. The policies will set reform priorities and, ultimately, guide funding. Most hatchery programs in the basin are funded either with congressional appropriations or directly by the Bonneville Power Administration.

"We need to engage the region -- what do we really want? Are these the right fish to produce," Suzumoto asked rhetorically. Many of the operations are guided by decisions made 50 years ago.

"The question is whether they are the right goals and objectives for today," Suzumoto said.

During a Tuesday presentation, Suzumoto told the Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee that the draft report paints a picture of an artificial production system out of balance, with a majority of the production concentrated in the lower river and weighted toward fall chinook.

That management direction was made decades ago with the idea of fueling commercial fisheries in the ocean and lower river. An analysis of information provided by hatchery operators and fed into the report's database indicates that 65 percent of the basin's 207 million planned salmonid releases were in the Columbia Gorge and lower river. Fall chinook account for 55 percent of all anadromous fish releases, "because fall chinook are large contributors to the ocean troll fisheries (off Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and southeast Alaska). Spring chinook, in contrast, are caught only in small numbers in the ocean commercial fishers, although they are highly valued by the in-river and tribal ceremonial fisheries," the report said. The balance of production is divided between winter and summer steelhead, coho, summer and spring chinook.

The report suggests that perhaps less emphasis should be put on producing stocks expressly for commercial harvest. Markets have deteriorated to the point that many of the hatchery products are "under utilized because it is not economically viable to catch them. This creates surpluses of adult fish at hatcheries and increases the risk of hatchery fish straying into unintended areas," the report said.

"In fact, it can be concluded from the results presented in this report that the Columbia River hatchery program for the most part continues to be operated under the social paradigm of the mid 20th century."

The fall chinook emphasis also tilts the biological scale.

"This production adds to the already large peak of chinook returning in the fall of each year. Hatcheries could be used to enhance biodiversity by producing a wider variety of salmoid species and life histories. Greater species and life history diversity makes sense ecologically and could provide greater harvest opportunities by enhancing adult returns over a longer period of time," the report says.

The downstream emphasis also leaves the "communities most affected by the construction of the dams" largely high and dry, the report says. Spawning areas in the Snake River above the Hells Canyon Complex and in the Columbia above Grand Coulee became blocked, effectively eliminating those salmon and steelhead runs.

"Communities farther inland normally have less access to returning adults because of their geographic location. Columbia River Basin hatchery programs have exacerbated this situation by producing a disproportionate number of fish in the lower Columbia River," the report concludes. "Attention should be given to the questions of whether and how to balance hatchery production."

The report points out that most of the lower Columbia hatchery programs are "segregated" while most of the upper river programs are "integrated." Integrated programs are defined as those intended to "minimize genetic divergence of the combined natural-hatchery population from the original natural population" -- a strategy commonly referred to as supplementation. Segregated programs are those that perpetuate hatchery stocks specifically for harvest and are designed to minimize the genetic interaction of the hatchery population with natural populations.

Despite the intent to keep wild and hatchery fish separated, many segregated hatchery programs contribute significantly to wild spawning populations "and therefore, may allow gene flow from the hatchery to the wild spawning population. For example, managers indicated that 30 percent of the segregated programs contributed more than 30 percent of the spawners in associated wild populations," the report says.

"In addition, 41 percent used non-local broodstock and 63 percent transferred or released fish from outside the stream system. In contrast, 91 percent of integrated programs used broodstock derived from within the subbasin and 81 percent avoided transfer or release of fish from outside the basin," the report said.

The report emphasized the need to avoid as much as possible straying and random mating of stocks.

". artificial production, like all forms of animal husbandry, can have significant impacts on the genetic makeup of hatchery-bred fish. These genetic changes can negatively affect the fitness or biological performance of hatchery fish.

"In addition, because hatchery fish inevitably interact with naturally produced fish, the fitness of wild populations can be negatively affected, a particular concern with populations listed under the Endangered Species Act," the report said. There are now 12 listed salmon and steelhead stocks in the basin.

The report acknowledged that "hatchery managers increasingly recognize the potential negative effects of husbandry practices and are developing techniques to minimize genetic impacts of hatchery production."

The report also cited competition for limited resources in the wild and the potential for disease transmission as other reasons. It used as an example the potential negative impacts on both wild and hatchery fish when large releases of hatchery fish flood into the relative tight space that is the Columbia River estuary. There both wild and hatchery fish spend varying amounts of time as they gird for the ocean portion of their life cycle, competing for limited food and habitat.

The APRE also cited reports that indicate that competition exists in the ocean, with both wild and hatchery fish numbers rising and falling with periods of high, and low, upwelling and ocean productivity.

The report also faults the hatchery system, as a whole, for failing to chart its own progress toward meeting goals and avoiding risks to wild populations.

"Monitoring and evaluation consists primarily of reports of typical fish statistics such as number of recruits per spawner, smolt-to-adult survival, escapement, and total catch. Even so, many programs did not collect information for any of these categories," the report says.

"Information on the number of recruits per spawner was collected for less than 5 percent of programs, smolt-to-adult-survival figures were available for 35.6 percent of programs, escapement figures were collected for 20.7 percent of programs and about 33 percent of programs had information on escapement.

The report concludes that hatcheries will continue to play a part in recovery and fish management, but need reforms.

"Hatcheries appear to be the only alternative in order to mitigate for habitat lost to development and to honor treaty obligations while retaining the benefits of hydroelectricity, agricultural irrigation, transportation and flood control," the report says. "Therefore, hatcheries appear to be part of the solution to maintaining viable fish runs in the Columbia River system."

The full draft report is available at:

Related Sites:
Move Hatcheries Upstream, and Fish Harvest Too by Patrick McGann, Lewiston Tribune, 10/24/3

Barry Espenson
Council Seeks Comment on Columbia Basin Hatchery Report
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 17, 2003

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