COLUMBIA RIVER - It's inaccurate, unreadable and even an affront to treaties and hard-won legally binding agreements.

That was the consensus of Columbia River fishermen, from charter fishing operators to commercial, sport and tribal fishermen - a group that is rarely united on a single issue - to the approach the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has taken to figure out how federally funded Columbia River basin hatcheries will be managed in the next 10 years.

The rejections came, one after another, from all the other people who spoke or gave testimony at a Thursday night meeting.

Bruce Buckmaster, a commercial fishing advocate from Astoria, suggested they scrap the draft environmental impact statement that laid out the prospective plans.

"This document is a red flag to our intellect ... and is an example of laziness on behalf of NMFS," Buckmaster said.

Tribes question assumptions Bruce Jim, the chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and chairman of the Fish and Wildlife Committee of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, was befuddled by much of the information NMFS has presented in its document on the subject.

"Many of the underlying assumptions used in the analysis are simply not correct," Jim said.

During more than two hours of discussion at the meeting, Allyson Purcell, a fishery biologist with NOAA's salmon recovery division, and Rob Jones, regional chief of NMFS' Salmon Hatcheries and Inland Fisheries branch, presented five ways the federally funded hatcheries might make decisions about how fish would be grown and released every year - the backbone of the diverse Columbia River salmon runs.

For each of the past 10 years, hatchery-operation funding for the 62 programs that have historically produced more than 71 million fish each year has been between $11 million and $16 million. Congress has not yet appropriated the money to operate the hatcheries next year.

The funding stream was established under the Mitchell Act in 1938, to help conserve salmon and steelhead when dams were installed upriver.

The five operating scenarios under discussion were included in the draft and range from continuing the status quo to zeroing out funding, and consider options that could cut back the number of fish caught by as much as close to 50 percent. Four of the options close hatcheries and cut production - in the zero funding scenario, down to about 36 percent of the status quo.

One alternative would operate lower Columbia River hatcheries with more strict standards to protect natural-origin fish, which wouldn't necessarily lower hatchery fish production, Purcell said. Another would apply those tougher standards to the upper river hatcheries.

Plan is 'flawed' Hobe Kytr, administrator of the Astoria-based gillnetting group Salmon for All, called the draft "a suite of options with negative results," earlier in the week, and questioned the factual accuracy of much of the supporting data.

Irene Martin, a Skamokawa-based writer, historian and fisherwoman, said she had tried to read the entire 1,100-page draft, and found it to be "flawed and full of mistakes."

"I could not see how an informed member of the public could make an informed comment," Martin said. She spent her testimony time reviewing the intent of the Mitchell Act, hoping to explain that the act wasn't just a narrow definition of conservation.

"It's a broader interpretation about abundance of salmon and the obligation to replace the salmon lost with the federal hydro projects," she said.

Butch Smith, owner of Coho Charters, a member of the Ilwaco Charter Association and chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council's Salmon Advisory Subpanel, called the draft an "embarrassment." After looking at the document, he got the impression that science was cherry-picked to support a particular agenda.

"We have to stop changing science every time we change administrations," Smith said.

The draft listed no scenarios that would increase fish production, he added.

Purcell and Jones explained that the document was prepared by a contractor and was meant to be used as a tool for its general themes, not its specifics. A policy has to be established to guide choices that hatchery managers make at their individual operations, Jones said.

"There are far more needs here than money, so we have to make decisions based on policy," he explained.

Purcell said the message she heard is that locals want Mitchell Act funds to be used to keep fisheries healthy rather than shifting funds to restoring habitat.

"This is really a public-driven process. We're asking people what they think the plan should be," Purcell said. She admitted the draft had some mistakes and those need to be corrected.

A recorded testimony from seven people was taken, and will be used with the draft and other science to come up with a final policy, Purcell said. That final decision should be made public by the end of 2011, she said.

Next, public meetings will be held in Lewiston and Boise, Idaho this month. Written comments are due by Dec. 3, and can be addressed to: William W. Stelle, Jr., NMFS Northwest Region, 7600 Sand Point Way NE., Seattle, WA., 98115, or can be sent electronically to (MitchellActEIS.nwr@noaa.gov).

The draft can be viewed at (www.tinyurl.com/2u9n5jz).

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