It's a Bad Idea to Cut Back
by Editorial Board
Feds are floating a plan that would hurt fishing interests
What happens if Columbia River salmon hatchery operations are cut? In the absence of unplanned and unattainable habitat restoration, salmon runs will begin dwindling. Generations-long agreements will be trashed. Many people who have built lives around fishing will be out of jobs. Salmon will have lost their most passionate and knowledgeable advocates.
Why is this even a question? A federal hearing in Astoria last Thursday night at the Columbia River Maritime Museum, looked at future alternatives that all assume cutbacks in hatcheries. This is a matter of deep concern and many who care about salmon and our economy attended.
News this year has included remarkable success stories about a number of upriver runs that were once given little chance of surviving into the 21st century. There have been hundreds of thousands of Chinook in the Snake River. Coho are back to viability in the Yakima River. Hanford Reach fall Chinook returns are inspirational.
Hatcheries are vital to all these runs and many others, either by directly producing the fish or by surrounding naturally spawning salmon with a large protective cushion of fish specifically meant to be caught. This system is far from perfect. Salmon advocates will always wish that dams on Snake and upper reaches of the Columbia either had not been built or had at least included far better provisions for salmon passage.
In fact, the conversion of the Columbia into a hydropower system starting the 1930s was known almost from the very start to threaten salmon. You cannot throw up a series of huge concrete barriers and expect salmon runs to prosper. It was obvious that the fishing industry, towns like Astoria, and the Columbia Basin's many vibrant salmon-based tribal cultures were being sacrificed in order to provide electricity for cities and irrigation water for farms.
To mitigate for this fact, the Mitchell Act set up a series of federal hatcheries. Despite decades of stagnant funding, they continue to bring millions of young salmon to life. This results in hundreds of thousands of returning adults. This doesn't compare to the millions that came back pre-dams, but it is something.
Now, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is starting an environmental impact statement (EIS) process. Initially directed only at examining federal hatchery processes and funding, it was quietly expanded to include all hatcheries on the river system. This blindsided fishing communities, tribes and industries.
Problems with the draft EIS are rife. They start with the biased assumption that hatcheries should be cut back in some way. Hatcheries, especially those operated by the upriver treaty tribes, are vastly improved over what they were only 10 or 20 years ago. They produce healthy, viable fish. Can hatcheries be operated even smarter? Very possibly so, but cutting federal hatcheries and interfering in the operations of others is no way to go.
Beyond this, the draft EIS is inconsistent with hard-won Oregon and Washington salmon recovery plans, with Canadian and tribal treaty obligations and with the fisheries allocation process south of Cape Falcon. All these fundamental problems mean the draft EIS must be withdrawn. NMFS should start over from scratch, without bias, and include everybody. Hatchery operations must continue in the meantime.
In important ways, fishing interests have come a long way in recent years. Commercial, tribal, charter, sport and conservation groups see eye to eye in some key ways. Foremost among these is knowledge that strong salmon runs are good for everyone, and fights are bad for everyone. Hatcheries are an indispensible tool. They must be supported and defended.
This doesn't mean NMFS can ignore habitat improvements. They are important, also. But cutting back on hatcheries before habitat is restored would be a big mistake.
NOAA: Hatchery Fish Have Poor Reproductive Success by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 10/8/10
Fill North Pacific With Pink, Chum, Sockeye by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 10/8/10
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