A new plan for hatchery operations in the Columbia River watershed will reduce fall Chinook releases, boost coho at select programs and sets limits on salmon and steelhead production.
The announcement this morning from the National Marine Fisheries Service is the culmination of a long review of the facilities funded by the Mitchell Act and spurred into higher gear through a lawsuit filed last year by the Wild Fish Conservancy.
Basically it’s a hatchery-by-hatchery guideline for how federal funds will be disbursed to state and tribal managers, allowing them to continue operating while also reducing impacts on ESA-listed species.
Of more than five dozen production programs that NMFS looked at, some will see sharply altered practices, some slight tweaks, and others were deemed OK, according to a top federal official.
To cut to, literally, the meat of it, the effect of today’s biological opinion will be to:
- Reduce releases of fall Chinook from 18 million to 14 million;
- No longer release hatchery steelhead into wild fish zones in the lower river, an effort to rebuild diversity;
- Increase hatchery coho releases up to 4 percent “because they pose less risk to protected wild stocks,” according to NMFS.
See the chart below for more specific production changes — which also allow for increased hatchery releases of Clackamas spring Chinook, Kalama late winter steelhead and creates a new Ringold coho program.
Bruce McIntosh, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Deputy Fish Chief, said his agency was supportive of the actions described in the fed’s new biop.
“The reductions in hatchery production will help ensure hatchery programs do their part in the recovery of ESA-listed salmon and steelhead stocks in the lower Columbia River. The final proposal was the result of a collaborative process between ODFW, WDFW, and NOAA Fisheries, tailoring the actions to individual programs and their associated effects.”
Requests for comment from WDFW were not returned.
As for the view from the recreational side, the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association’s Liz Hamilton says that at first glance it looks like federal and state managers were serious about reducing the number of stray hatchery fish on wild spawning beds while also recognizing that the Mitchell Act is an obligation to fishers.
“We appreciate the efforts to reprogram stocks to be more locally adapted, or to release sites where they can be harvested with minimal impacts on wild stocks,” she said. “We hope that changing stocks and release sites, combined with selective harvest and weirs is the right ‘portfolio’ mix for better conservation.”
Hamilton was also hopeful the 535-page document could withstand challenges from the anti-hatchery industrial lawsuit complex, but she also worried about its effect on anglers who don’t have the boats or gear to fish the mainstem Columbia.
“From the sportfishing industry side, this has the potential to create further harm to tributary fisheries,” she said. “We are reeling from all the tributary hatchery reductions in Puget Sound, the Willamette and Sandy as well as other places in the region, and can ill afford more. The waters and banks of tributaries are the incubators of our industry. Losing fisheries where a beginner can walk up to river and cast, or fish out of a small boat, is betraying our future.”
Federal fishery overseers acknowledge cutting fall Chinook production will affect the catch of all fleets — nontribal sport, tribal troll and nontreaty troll — by 4 to 6 percent as the fish return to the Washington and Oregon Coasts and enter the Lower Columbia.
However, they say increased coho production will boost harvest ops in the same waters.
The changes will occur over several years.
The Mitchell Act has been hugely important in mitigating changes wrought by the hydropower system on the Columbia and development in the vast watershed, producing more than two out of every five salmon and steelhead harvested annually.
“The science tells us that hatcheries can have benefits but also present risks we have to consider,” Rob Jones, chief of Anadromous Production and Inland Fisheries for NMFS’ West Coast Region, said in a press release. “Every hatchery program offers its own unique set of benefits and risks and we’re tailoring hatchery operations to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks. We worked closely with hatchery operators to reach decisions that accomplish this through increases in fish production at some programs and decreases at others.”