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Administration OKs New Plan, Funding Increase for USFWS

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - January 24, 2003

The Bush administration has approved the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's strategic plan for its fisheries program, and as a result, this week announced it will boost funding by 16 percent for national fish hatcheries, including those involved in Columbia Basin salmon recovery.

But no increase was proposed for habitat improvement projects, which are considered an equal or greater priority for the fisheries division, a conservation group said. While hailing the strategic plan and the funding increase, a Trout Unlimited official said the group will lobby Congress to revise the FY04 budget proposal.

The fisheries program's Strategic Vision, which has been in the works since 1999, was formally unveiled on Tuesday at the first National Fisheries Leadership Conference here. The conference brought together 500 agency employees from around the country, including the Pacific region.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton told the conference the development of guidance, goals and priorities for the program helped paved the way for approval of more funding by the White House budget office, which has been critical of its management in the past.

"Help is on the way," Norton said. "You have labored to come up with a strategic plan that has convinced Washington that it is time to increase your funding. Now it is going to be up to you to follow the strategic thinking and planning you have done with follow-through and results."

Norton disclosed that President George W. Bush will seek a 16 percent increase -- or $8.1 million more - in the hatchery system's budget in his FY2004 federal budget request to Congress. Bush will release his proposed budget on Feb. 3, but Norton said she received special permission to give the conference "a sneak preview."

Calling the increased funding "a significant step," Norton said "it gives us a rare opportunity to turn around the fisheries program," which OMB targeted for budget cuts last year. "The proposed budget increase will help to recover imperiled fish species, increase recreation opportunities for anglers, eradicate invasive fish populations and repair aging infrastructure at fish hatcheries across the nation," she said.

The Vision document is an outgrowth of an effort that began in 1999. The Fish and Wildlife Service asked the Sport Fishing and Boating Partnership Council, an advisory group to the interior secretary, to make recommendations about the role and mission of the National Fish Hatchery System. The group of representatives from state and other federal agencies, Native American tribes, conservation organizations, private industry and academia, also completed a second set of recommendations for the entire fisheries program.

Norton said that too often in the past, performance measures were not part of the mix for federal programs and that goals were not clearly articulated and things not always well managed. But she said she disagreed with the Office of Management and Budget's "broad-brush" assessment of the fisheries program last year.

"They had decided on reductions in funding for a program they believed was faltering," she said. But the White House agency "eventually agreed to let us show them that we could improve the program."

One improvement was the Strategic Vision, which emphasizes performance goals, workforce management and "the proper use of science," Norton said.

With a third of the nation's freshwater fish threatened or endangered, Norton said she was sympathetic to the work fisheries program. The secretary told employees she and Fish and Wildlife Service Director Steve Williams share "your work and your vision" and have faith "your ability to work with your partners to restore habitats and move fish populations toward recovery, to battle invasive species and improve fish passage."

The FY04 budget request for the National Fish Hatchery System will be $40.8 million, up from $35.7 million this year. Of the increase, $5 million would go to hatchery operations and $3 million to maintenance. The funding will be used to implement additional priority recovery and restoration tasks prescribed in approved Recovery Plans and fishery management plans; increase fishing opportunities for the public through enhanced restoration activities; and improve aging hatchery infrastructure to meet fishery management and recovery plan requirements.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will use will use additional funding to implement dozens of priority projects, including several in the Northwest.

One is $28,000 to perform standardized tests on wild and hatchery salmon captured in the Methow River drainage in Washington to assess impacts of hatchery fish on wild populations.

In the Puget Sound, $117,000 would be spent to complete modifications to the existing fish ladder, passageway and channel to the hatchery water supply and prevent the wrong fish from entering the hatchery's fish production ponds.

Another project will monitor juvenile spring chinook released from the Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery into Oregon's Clackamas River to see how they fare under "living stream conditions."

Daniel Diggs, assistant fisheries director for the Pacific regional office, said that in general, Puget Sound and Columbia Basin projects will be related to salmon restoration and recovery. But he did not know how much of the increase is slated for the Northwest. "Obviously the increased funds help a lot," Diggs said.

Hatchery reform is part of the fisheries program's Strategic Vision, Diggs said. "One of the big unfunded, unmet needs in the National Fish Hatchery System is to implement all the changes we'd like to make on hatchery reform," he said. Those include some infrastructure improvements but most relate to operating hatcheries in a biological context. An example is adoption of new approaches such as Nature's Rearing Technology for raising smolts in conditions more like those of wild fish in natural habitat.

Other possible reform projects include opening fish passage in areas above hatcheries that have been blocked and development of genetic management plans to integrate hatchery operations with wild stock restoration efforts, Diggs said. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service has been working for three years with Washington state and tribes on a wild spring chinook restoration program in the Methow River drainage. The federal hatchery is attempting to make a transition from its hatchery stock, which originally came from a fish from outside the drainage many years ago, and use one more adapted to local conditions and closer genetically to the naturally spawning population.

Steve Moyer, vice president of Trout Unlimited, said the funding increase is "a much needed shot of money for a program that is valuable to the country and can be more valuable. They're on the right track in boosting it."

But Moyer, who was a member of the advisory council that helped develop the Strategic Vision, said the administration "missed the mark (by) not putting some more money into the habitat work. That's where the future of the agency's fisheries program lies."

"The increase is good news. It just needs to be directed better, so we're going talk to Congress to see if we can get a little more oriented toward habitat," Moyer said. "I'm not saying they shouldn't spend more on fixing up hatcheries. They do have some that are falling apart."

But Moyer said the strategic plan places the greatest priority on aquatic habitat conservation work, such as replacing thousands of inadequate or blocked road culverts in the Northwest, small dams and other barriers to fish passage.

Other such work includes clean-up of acid drainage from mines and installing fish screens on irrigation diversions that kill fish by sucking them into irrigation canals and ditches. "We can't afford to do that with the few wild salmon we have left," Moyer said.

"We firmly believe it will do more for the fisheries resource in the long run" to emphasize habitat improvement and create good will and lasting partnerships working with states, local conservation groups and others, he said.

Moyer said the fisheries program "has floundered for long time, figuring out exactly what its mission is" and has been criticized by OMB and Congress. "Congress has never given it a clear mandate (or) drawn the lines neatly between what states and the feds are supposed to do for fish," except in the case of endangered species recovery, where the Fish and Wildlife Service has a clear role, he said.

"There has been an ongoing debate" among federal officials, states and outside groups on what the fisheries program's mission should be and how to meld the work of various hatcheries that Congress has established around the country.

The new strategic plan adopted key recommendations of the advisory group, including an emphasis on habitat, Moyer said. "It says, 'Yes, fix the hatcheries and hold them more accountable for their outputs, but focus on the resource.'"

Habitat improvement "will do more for the fisheries resource in the long run" and create lasting partnerships with states, local conservation groups and others, he said.

Another recommendation that was adopted in the plan was to focus on restoring native and endangered fish and mitigating the adverse effects of federal dams, he said.

Related Sites:
The strategic plan is available on line at:

CBB Staff
Administration OKs New Plan, Funding Increase for USFWS
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 24, 2003

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