Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hatchery Reform, Feds Refocusing Mitchell Act Funds

Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service released their long awaited Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the federally administered Mitchell Act hatcheries on the Columbia River. With so much federal funding hanging in the balance, the DEIS is a critical part of hatchery reform and lays out how federal dollars will be prioritized and allocated in the Columbia Basin. The Mitchell Act hatcheries were built following the construction of the Columbia dams as mitigation for fish lost to the hydrosystem and of the 178 hatchery programs currently in operation on the Columbia system, many of them are funded, at least in part by Mitchell Act Funds. While hatcheries currently support much of the harvest on the Columbia, the consequences of 50 years of industrial scale supplementation have been devastating for many populations of wild fish in the basin.

The DEIS aims to address these impacts and offers five alternative strategies. The first alternative is no action and the second is no funding for Mitchell Act hatcheries. Both of these scenarios are unlikely to play out, leaving three alternatives which represent the more likely outcomes. For the purposes of hatchery management and reform NMFS identifies two levels of performance goals for its hatcheries Intermediate and Strong. Intermediate performance goals hold hatcheries to a standard of 50% natural influence in hatchery broodstock and in segregated programs fewer than 10% of spawning adults being of hatchery origin. While many hatchery programs on the Columbia currently fail to meet even these modest intermediate standards, it will take considerably higher goals to protect the productivity and evolutionary integrity of wild salmon and steelhead over the long term.

The third alternative would require that all Mitchell Act hatcheries meet the intermediate performance goals and would reduce production at mitigation hatcheries to bring their operations into compliance. It would also lead to the construction of seasonal weirs to capture hatchery origin fish and prevent introgression between wild and hatchery populations. The fourth alternative would require that the Willamette and Lower Columbia ESUs meet stronger performance goals, construct both seasonal and permanent weirs on spawning tributaries throughout the system to reduce hatchery introgression, while only holding Middle and Upper Columbia as well as Snake River hatchery programs to an intermediate performance goal. The fifth and final alternative is essentially the same as the fourth, except upper-river hatcheries would be held to a stronger performance goal while Lower Columbia and Willamette programs would have to meet intermediate standards.

Holding part of the system accountable for one level of standards while allowing other programs to get off the hook makes no sense and it is essential that all hatchery programs in the Columbia Basin be held to the highest performance goals possible. Another potentially problematic part of the EIS is the plan to start new integrated hatchery programs. On all but the most imperiled runs, these programs which take broodstock from the wild populations, rear their offspring in a hatchery and release them for harvest conflict with the recovery of wild salmon and steelhead. Work on the Hood River has shown that wild broodstock fish have significantly lower fitness than their wild counterparts and that the effects of their hatchery rearing can linger in the gene pool for generations. On the Kalama River, WDFW has been running a broodstock program for summer run steelhead for almost a decade. Every year 50-60 wild summer steelhead are taken from the run, which now numbers just above 300 fish in most years. The offspring of these wild summer steelhead are reared in the hatchery, adipose clipped and released into the lower river to support harvest. Both of these programs have proven ineffective at restoring wild populations and may be doing much more harm than good. On the other hand, the construction of weirs to protect spawning areas from hatchery strays has already been proven effective on the Deschutes system and should be implemented throughout the Columbia Basin.

Overall, this DEIS is extremely encouraging. The willingness of NMFS to make the politically difficult decision to reduce hatchery production at some facilities shows they are serious about reform. The DEIS represents a major shift in the goals and impact of Mitchell Act funds on the Columbia system and provides hope that fisheries managers are finally hoping to strike a more sincere balance between hatchery enhanced production and the conservation and recovery of wild stocks. NMFS is accepting comments on the DEIS until Novermber 4th, 2010 and given the backlash it will likely provoke from stake holders it is essential that they hear from people who support hatchery reform.

Coverage in the Oregonian:

Read the Plan:

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