COLUMBIA RIVER — Some of the oldest hatcheries in the Columbia Basin are still churning out around 70 million smolts a year, half of the hatchery fish in the Columbia Basin. These are the so-called Mitchell Act facilities, mandated by a federal statute to mitigate fish impacts of the mainstem dams on the Columbia River. 

But these facilities are under relatively fresh scrutiny, part of a process by NOAA Fisheries to write an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Mitchell Act (MA) hatcheries. A draft EIS released last August looked at several alternatives for future operations. It included an analysis that suggested each returning adult steelhead and spring Chinook from MA facilities costs more than $200 to produce. 

So far, comments from tribes and other stakeholders have not been kind to the agency, which is charged with trying to sort out the effects of the basin’s hatchery fish on wild ESA-listed stocks. 

The feds said last summer they will be expanding their examination to include all basin hatcheries, but judging from what has transpired recently, they won’t be paying much attention to questions about costs and benefits that surfaced in the draft. 

Tucked away in the middle of that Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) is a table of preliminary results estimating that in recent years it has cost $229 to produce every returning hatchery winter steelhead, and $237 for every hatchery spring Chinook from a MA hatchery. That’s a bargain compared to the 1990s, when return rates were extremely low. The analysis pegged the cost of each returning winter steelhead at $789 back then. 

The table showed that MA-produced fall Chinook are a relative bargain at $61 per returning adult; coho were pegged at $56 per returning adult and summer Chinook were $221 apiece. 

However, the consultants who produced that table of stunners are no longer doing any analysis for the feds. NMFS has hired a new consultant whose evaluation does not include any cost/benefit analysis at all. 

The new, rosier look at the MA hatcheries was presented at a little-publicized meeting of hatchery managers Jan. 18 in Portland. They got a chance to see just how important those hatcheries are to regional fisheries, without the nagging negative results from the initial analysis, which is still plain for all to see if one digs into the unwieldy DEIS. 


Mitchell hatcheries productive

At the meeting, Sacramento-based consultant Tom Wegge of TCW Economics, author of the latest analysis, pointed out that the MA hatcheries, which produce spring Chinook, summer and winter steelhead, coho, and gobs of fall Chinook, produce nearly half of the salmonids that are caught in the basin every year, along with about 21 percent of the salmon harvested off the Washington and Oregon coasts. 

That adds up to more than 110,000 fish produced annually for the basin’s commercial fishermen and 47,000 for sportfishers in the fresh water. Another 57,000 MA salmon are caught off the coasts by commercial trollers and 37,000 by recreational anglers. 

The MA fish make up about 70 percent of the catch of commercial fishermen in the basin, and 26 percent of recreational fisheries. Off the coasts, they make up 17 percent of commercial catches and 27 percent of the recreational take. 

Wegge said it costs about $17 million to run the hatcheries every year, which generates about $2.3 million to the basin’s commercial fishermen and $2.4 million to harvesters off the coasts. 

He also estimated that recreational anglers spend about $12.3 million in trip-related expenditures in the basin every year, and nearly $3 million off the Washington and Oregon coasts. 

Wegge estimated that 705 jobs are tied to MA production, and $30.1 million in personal income, along with 166 jobs on the coasts of the two states, which generates another $6.4 million in income. 

The DEIS released by NMFS last August was much less upbeat, and relied on an initial analysis of MA hatcheries by TRG, a Corvallis-based consulting group. 

Shannon Davis, a TRG principal, told NW Fishletter that their own analysis showed that in most years, the economic activity produced by harvesting MA fish was less than the cost to produce those fish. 


Minimum analysis

“NMFS wanted the minimum analysis,” Davis said. “They were upset.” But it wasn’t just their initial results that led to a parting of the ways with the feds, Davis said. When NMFS announced it wanted to expand the analysis to include all the hatcheries in the basin, his group told the feds that the additional work would cost twice as much and take another year. The feds balked at that. 

Davis said the new mandate has diluted the original purpose of the EIS, and introduced a lot of issues that aren’t germane. 

The TRG analysis estimated that MA production costs were $30.4 million a year, which included MA and other funding resources, and annualized capital costs. Benefits were calculated at nearly $19 million a year. Their analysis included costs of hatchery construction, while Wegge’s new analysis does not. 

They said salaries associated with MA operations and administration generated about $50.3 million a year, which translates into 1,400 full- and part-time jobs. 

Wegge said the data compiled and analyzed in his own results were not adequate to complete a cost-benefit analysis. 

The TRG summary says it is not arguing “that the hatcheries should operate with a positive benefit-cost calculation. They were built to operate to mitigate in a much more involved economic and social context.” 

But, they said, such a measurement could show economic efficiencies in different hatchery production alternatives, and help decide on other means for accomplishing the same objectives to sustain fisheries. 

“It is a comparative tool that can provide insight into the existing baseline condition effects and relative magnitude and direction of economic changes associated with hatchery operation and practices changes.” 

In comments that accompanied the summary’s posting, Native Fish Society Executive Director Bill Bakke was more blunt. 

“NMFS is rather sensitive, for they not only have a mandate to recover ESA-listed salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River, they also fund Mitchell Act hatcheries that are contributing to the extinction of endangered fish,” said Bakke. “At the very least, NMFS would like to show that their hatchery program is not a deficit spending program to justify its negative effect on salmon recovery. 

“The summary will point out that the Mitchell Act Hatchery programs are deficit spending and that the primary beneficiaries of hatchery program funding are the fish management institutions,” Bakke said. “It is little wonder that NMFS leadership rejected this economic evaluation of its hatchery program and hired another party with the hope there would be a better answer.” 

Washington congressman Norm Dicks (D) was instrumental in securing $10 million in funding last year to improve some Mitchell Act facilities to pay for some recommendations that a hatchery reform group developed several years ago, including $2 million to develop selective fishing gear in the Lower Columbia. NMFS did not respond to questions associated with the newest MA study. 

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