“Our task is to find the sweet spot,” NOAA Fisheries’ Rob Jones said Tuesday of Columbia River basin fish managers’ ongoing quest to minimize the risk posed by hatchery production to remnant salmon and steelhead populations that continue to spawn in the wild.
Basin hatchery production is, in large part, intended to mitigate for impact to salmon stocks from the region’s hydro system and provide fish for harvest. Some “supplementation” programs are aimed at infusing flagging natural populations.
Jones, Production and Inland Fisheries Branch chief for NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Region, was amongst a panel of federal, state and tribal officials called together this week by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council for “a conversation” about what aspects of supplementation -- and the relevant issues important to scoping a Columbia River Hatchery Effects Evaluation Team (CRHEET) -- should be the subject of a science and policy panel discussion at the Council’s March meeting.
Supplementation involves bringing hatchery-raised fish to streamside “acclimation” ponds near spawning areas for their final rearing. Such fish soon launch their migration to the ocean and tend to home back in on those spawning areas when they return to freshwater as adults to reproduce in the wild.
Questions remain about what risks those supplemented fish pose to the overall fitness of the wild populations through genetics and competition for available resources.
CRHEET is an effort launched by NOAA Fisheries and the Bonneville Power Administration with the goal of developing a regionally coordinated umbrella for the ongoing collection of monitoring information, and the evaluation and reporting of conclusions on hatchery effects and effectiveness.
A long-unanswered question is just how supplementation programs benefit and/or negatively impact wild fish. Naturally produced fish of 13 Columbia/Snake river basin species are protected under the Endangered Species Act. NOAA Fisheries is charged with protecting listed stocks.
“BPA and NOAA plan to work with the Council and the region between now and 2013 to develop the scope and work plan for CRHEET,” according to an NPCC staff memo prepared for Tuesday’s meeting. “While the scope and work plan is being developed, the Council can work with all parties, including the science review teams, to ensure CRHEET meets the needs of the Council’s program as well as the BiOps.
“Review of CRHEET by the ISRP and a broader look by the ISAB will be important to understanding the full range of relevant and important issues. We want to get the CRHEET project right before it is implemented,” the NPCC memo says.
A recently released report from the Council’s Independent Scientific Review Panel says “that there is an absence of empirical evidence from the ongoing projects to assign a conservation benefit to supplementation other than preventing extinction.
“The supplementation projects with high proportions of hatchery fish in the hatchery broodstock and on the natural spawning grounds are likely compromising the long-term viability of the wild populations,” the ISRP concludes in its December “Retrospective Report 2011: An expanded summary of the ISRP’s review of results conducted for the Research, Monitoring and Evaluation and Artificial Production Category Review.”
The ISRP judges for scientific credibility projects proposed for funding through the NPCC’s Columbia River Fish and Wildlife Program, which is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration. BPA, which markets power generated in the Federal Columbia River Power System, funds fish and wildlife projects as mitigation for impacts caused by the existence and operation of the hydro projects. Those projects include both hatchery construction and operations and maintenance.
Jones said that fishery and hatchery managers are generally “on a good path” toward providing fisheries through hatchery practices that have been greatly improved to reduce the risk to wild fish.
Hatcheries “are not operating to the detriment of wild salmon like they once did,” Jones said of reformed practices.
He said that CRHEET is being developed to respond to technical questions on the issue, to organize available data and make it more accessible to managers and to provide a technical advisory group.
Most of Tuesday’s panelists spoke about the need to “get on the same page,” i.e. agree on research designs that will “get the results needed by the region to make an accurate determination of what effects hatchery fish do have on natural fish populations,” according to the NPCC memo.
The Nez Perce Tribe’s Jay Hesse said that discussions of the relative benefits or detriments of supplementation involve “a lot of shades of gray.”
“We’ve not done a good job of describing what… we’re looking at,” he said. Hesse and others said the CRHEET process needs to enable a basinwide, comprehensive evaluation of artificial production’s effectiveness and scientific findings to-date.
Most supplementation programs in the region are run by tribal managers.
“We’re doing a good job of implementing sound science” in the programs, Hesse said.
Paul Lumley, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission executive director, said that the tribes “recognize that there is significant risk” to wild fish associated with the production of hatchery fish. Most fishery managers estimate that 80 percent of the salmon and steelhead spawners that return each year are of hatchery origin.
The job at hand is to manage that risk, Lumley said, with sound hatchery practices.
The tribes insist that hatcheries must remain “a tool to benefit recovery” of imperiled wild stocks and help rebuild populations for both reproduction and harvest.
“As long as we have dams we’ll have hatcheries” to provide mitigation for losses heavily suffered by the tribes, Lumley told the Council.
He said supplementation programs receive an unfair share of scrutiny. Fish produced exclusively for harvest likely have a much greater effect on wild stocks.
About145 million salmon and steelhead juveniles are produced and released annually from hatcheries in the Columbia/Snake river basin from its mouth to the headwaters, Lumley said. Of those, 88 million are released above the lower Columbia’s Bonneville Dam (river mile 146).
About 30 percent of those above Bonneville releases (26 million juveniles) are produced for supplementation or fishery/supplementation.
Bonneville funding accounts for about half of the 26 million-fish production for supplementation, and of those 13 million juveniles, only about 45 percent (6 million) are produced to supplement ESA listed stocks.
The remaining 55 percent (7 million) are being used in attempts to reintroduce and/or rejuvenate unlisted stocks such as Umatilla River spring chinook and upper Columbia coho.
In its retrospective report the ISRP said that it had “found that monitoring and evaluation has improved in all three major areas covered by this report. Nonetheless, lack of a comprehensive analysis of biological objective achievements for hatchery and habitat efforts impedes the understanding of program effectiveness.
“The Basin would benefit from an evaluation of management strategies and a structured decision approach for these categories, an approach that combines habitat, hatchery, passage, and full life-stage recruitment information,” the report says. “Although hatchery production has contributed to more adult fish, and in recent years harvest opportunities have increased, with some exceptions, supplementation experiments generally have not demonstrated improvement in the abundance of natural-origin salmon and steelhead. In addition, major biological improvements have not been measured as a result of habitat restoration.”