Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Yakima, Klickitat Hatcheries Undermine Wild Salmon

From the latest issue of the Osprey. Visit our website to subscribe today.

by Will Atlas
co-Chair FFF Steelhead Committee

With over a century of declines due to dam building, habitat degradation and overharvest, tribal fisheries in the Columbia Basin depend largely upon hatchery supplementation. In the Middle Columbia hatcheries managed by the Yakama Klickitat Fisheries Project release millions of smolts annuallly and provide much of the harvest opportunity for both tribal and sport fisheries. In the Klickitat alone 600,000 spring Chinook, 90,000 skamania steelhead as well as 4 million fall Chinook and 3.5 million coho both of which are non-native and there is currently a proposal to build yet another hatchery in the basin.

Unfortunately these programs come at a significant cost to ESA listed wild fish and recent work by the Columbia River Intertribal Fisheries Commission (CRITFC ) found that non-native fall Chinook were inbreeding with the fragile population of native spring Chinook, undermining the genetic and evolutionary integrity of the population. A tagging study assessing fish migration past Lyle Falls on the lower Klickitat estimated approximately 1000 wild summer steelhead ascended the river in 2010, while another 5,000 hatchery summer runs were passed into the upper river. Of those 5,000 hatchery steelhead only about half were harvested leaving the rest to spawn among the wild population, undermining the productivity of the ESA listed wild stock.

These effects are not unique to the Klickitat and Yakima basins; however the scale of the hatchery programs and their impact on wild populations is undeniable. On the Yakima a spring Chinook hatchery on the upper river has in a few generations shifted the life history of the fish towards earlier maturity and smaller body size. Despite the effects of domestication Yakima Tribal fisheries continue to push for large scale hatchery supplementation, even going as far as suggesting that these programs have been responsible for recovery in the basin, this despite a tremendous body of scientific evidence suggesting the contrary. In November biologist Bill Bosch was interviewed in the Columbia Basin Bulletin and compared redd count data from the Upper Yakima to the Naches which is unsupplemented. Over the last 10 years Chinook populations as indexed by redd counts have increased 160% on the Naches while the number of redds has increased 245% on the Upper Yakima. These data are misleading however because of the high proportion of the redds in the Yakima were constructed by hatchery fish spawning in the wild, yet Bosch went as far as saying that the Naches, “appears to be declining while the upper Yakima is holding its own, replacing itself”. This is simply not the case. A 160% increase in wild redd abundance should be applauded and represents a tremendous improvement, while the spawning population in the Upper Yakima is likely dominated by hatchery origin fish and their offspring.

The Yakama Nation has an understandable desire to fish in accordance with their treaty rights. Hatcheries provide harvestable fish despite the depressed status of wild populations. However, this harvest comes with the cost of hatchery-induced undermining of the genetic and evolutionary integrity of wild fish within their watersheds; something that is both wrong and deeply at odds with much of the other extremely important work they do for wild fish. The tribe has been ardent advocates for fish passage and restoration work in the basin and are actively engaged in a wide variety of projects ranging from fish passage at Cle Elum Lake where they hope to recover native sockeye to irrigation water buybacks to ensure adequate instream flows. Moving forward however it is crucial that the tribe and the state address the impacts that hatcheries are having on the productivity and genetic integrity of wild salmon and steelhead in the Klickitat and Yakima Basins. The first step being to discontinue the release of non-native fall Chinook and coho in the Klickitat and addressing the threat posed by hatchery summer steelhead spawning in the wild.

The Klickitat is a nationally designated wild and scenic river and holds tremendous promise for the recovery of listed summer steelhead and spring Chinook, however the current management wastes this opportunity turning one of our state’s most distinctive and stunning rivers into little more than a hatchery raceway.

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