Federal fishery overseers today updated Northwest reporters on proposed tweaks to salmon and steelhead programs at Mitchell Act hatcheries.
Those are the dozens of facilities in the Columbia Basin that are operated by Northwest states and tribes to produce fish for harvest, and which are being fine-tuned to better support the recovery of ESA-listed stocks throughout the watershed.
Rob Jones, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s hatchery and inland fisheries division in Portland, spoke to a “suite of pretty significant changes in hatchery practices” that may come out of the biological opinion it expects to issue in mid-January.
Congressional funding for the programs will be looked at through the lens of how well they minimize impacts on protected runs, what types of broodstock are being used, and how much straying they produce.
NMFS has been working on these questions for years “as part of the process of completing a decision on the larger environmental impact statement on Mitchell Act funding,” according to spokesman Michael Milstein, but a lawsuit filed last March by the Wild Fish Conservancy put a harder deadline on when the biop needed to completed.
Jones says it’s about “tailoring hatchery programs after understanding where their fish end up.”
He says that he expects the final result will reduce salmon and steelhead releases from some facilities, while others will maintain status quo in terms of numbers produced or even see some increases.
Production of tule Chinook at five Mitchell Act programs will likely drop, but could be upped at two, he says.
He writes that hatchery tule Chinook production from Spring Creek downstream could be cut by a fifth by the year 2022, resulting in a 6 percent drop-off in the sport catch at Buoy 10 and smaller declines moving upstream.
Coho releases may also be reduced somewhat, but would be offset by a new NMFS program in the Hanford Reach, Thomas reports.
And he writes that steelhead production would move completely away from the use of Chambers fish, which are being phased out after this coming’s spring final release in five systems between Kalama and Stevenson, in favor of local-origin fish.
That’s already occurred on the Cowlitz, where Chambers were stocked for early return until being discontinued several years ago. An inbasin broodstock is now used, resulting in a more naturally timed late run.
Skamanias would also continue to be reared and released in a number of rivers, Thomas reports.
In response to another reporter who asked if NMFS would now be more involved in allocation issues — a hot topic what with Oregon’s interest in extending the transition period on Columbia River reforms — because the biop would increasingly affect state fisheries, Jones responded that the agency’s intent is to find ways to support hatcheries while recovering listed stocks.
Jones added that it’s likely there will be a call for a study to better understand competition between hatchery and wild fish in the Columbia estuary.