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Unmarked Hatchery Fish Still Being Released in Columbia Basin

by Bill Bakke
NW Fishletter, December 17, 2002

In 2001, 8.9 million unmarked salmon and steelhead were released into the Columbia River Basin and planned releases of nearly two million unmarked fish were slated for 2002 and 2003. This means that some hatchery steelhead, the bulk of those releases, will not have a missing adipose fin, which marks it as a fish of hatchery origin.

The releases will continue under the U.S. v. Oregon agreement among the fish agencies and tribes.

The unmarked fish have created jobs for people like Bret Morgan, who reads steelhead scales at Bonneville Dam to determine how many hatchery and wild steelhead are in the run. Since the adipose fins on wild steelhead are no longer a reliable indicator to calculate the size of the wild run, scales have to be read to determine whether a fish that has an adipose fin is of hatchery or wild origin. It's important to know since most wild steelhead above Bonneville Dam are listed under the Endangered Species Act and rebuilding efforts depend on accurate run counts.

But counting the wild run by reading scales is much more difficult in the tributaries. "The Deschutes gets too many stray hatchery fish, but they are normally marked so they can be identified and the anglers can take them, removing some of them from the river," said ODFW's Steve Pribyl, who has the responsibility for managing the Deschutes River.

In 2001, Pribyl first noticed unmarked hatchery steelhead in the river when nine percent of the run turned out to be of hatchery origin but not marked with a clipped adipose fin. He was alerted to these unmarked fish, which some fish managers call "stubbies" because of their eroded dorsal fins, a sign of being reared in the confined space of hatcheries. The crowds of juvenile fish nip each other; some fish return as adults with no dorsal fin at all.

"Unmarked hatchery fish create a unknown," Pribyl said. "It complicates our ability to do run accounting and throws another element of error into the mix. It's another facet of the stray hatchery steelhead problem in the Deschutes River and we cannot use anglers to remove unmarked stray steelhead from the river."

WDFW's Dan Rawding said four stubbies had been found on the Wind River in Washington state over the last two years, but they didn't make it over the falls, where a fish trap can sort wild fish from hatchery stock. However, on the nearby Klickitat, it's a different story. There is no trap on the Klickitat, so diverting hatchery fish is impossible. The agency is seeking BPA funding to put the trap back into operation.

Unmarked steelhead are also found on the John Day River in Oregon, a stream managed for both wild salmon and steelhead. ODFW's Tim Unterwegner said inventory work on steelhead shows a 9.4 percent stray rate of unmarked steelhead in the river. "There is not a lot we can do about hatchery strays in the John Day," he said. Anglers are allowed to take marked fish, that is, hatchery strays with missing adipose fins, but they cannot take unmarked hatchery fish.

Rob Jones of NOAA Fisheries said his agency is trying to establish accountability among managers to identify local fish management goals and address problems, which will eventually lead to a written plan for each hatchery and subbasin. At that stage, Jones said, "NOAA Fisheries will decide whether a hatchery program is consistent with recovery.

"We do not want to spell out a one size fits all program for broodstock collection and returning adults," Jones said. "We are not looking for a 10-percent stray rate standard, we are looking for management of stray rates that makes sense at the local level." But Jones said the feds are intending to seek a higher percent of all fish to be marked when the U.S. v. Oregon agreement expires. "We want strays to managed to reach recovery objectives," Jones said.

In a recent NWPPC report on the cost of hatchery fish, the Independent Economic Advisory Board identified data gaps that needed fixing prior to an assessment of hatchery programs in the Columbia Basin. They recommended that "more extensive tagging of fish from each release group would be desirable for both biological and economic assessments of the hatchery programs."

But unmarked hatchery steelhead are being released at the request of the Columbia River Treaty Tribes. They are being released from federally funded hatcheries, many of which are operated by the states, and from hatcheries funded by private utilities such as Douglas County PUD in the state of Washington.

"The goal of the hatchery program is to increase natural production," said Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "It doesn't help the tribes or the region to have these fish returning to hatcheries. We want them back in the rivers to increase natural populations."

However, it's tough to evaluate a hatchery program that releases unmarked fish because their survival and contribution to natural spawning cannot be determined. "The tribes welcome monitoring and evaluation," said Hudson.

"We want to know that these hatchery programs are working, but we need adequate funding." Further cuts proposed by BPA are another threat to the monitoring and evaluation program, Hudson said.

"Straying hatchery fish in tributaries is a concern," said CRITFC's Doug Dompier, "but there are no proposals to address this as far as I know." He said his agency was not advocating killing stray hatchery fish because straying is a natural phenomena.

"Hatchery fish are not a demon and should be respected," Dompier said.

Bill Bakke
Unmarked Hatchery Fish Still Being Released in Columbia Basin
NW Fishletter, December 17, 2002

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