COLUMBIA RIVER - Widening the divide between hatchery fish and naturally produced salmon can, along with habitat improvements, achieve Endangered Species Act recovery goals for Lower Columbia River Chinook, according to preliminary findings released late last month by the Hatchery Scientific Review Group.
That involves reducing the straying of hatchery fish onto spawning grounds and injecting more natural-origin fish into hatchery broodstock. The former can be achieved through research and breeding, and by changing harvest practices to remove more hatchery fish.
The report is the first "roll-up" produced in the review process triggered two years ago by Congress.
It looks at the populations across an "evolutionarily significant unit" scale - a geographical area that takes in tributaries to the lower Columbia and estuary in Oregon and Washington. The ESU is NOAA Fisheries definition of particular population groupings for listing under the Endangered Species Act - in this case Lower Columbia Chinook populations.
The goal of the review of all federal, private, state and tribal hatcheries in the Columbia Basin is to develop hatchery management and sustainable harvest strategies that minimize risks to listed wild populations and contribute to conservation goals.
The HSRG is an independent scientific panel established and funded by Congress to assess hatchery and harvest effects on efforts to recover listed salmon and steelhead. Among its tools is the All-H Analyzer statistical model, which allows researchers to judge how particular changes to the existing management could affect productivity of listed fish. Those changes could include habitat improvements and changes to hatchery and harvest management and/or hydro system operations.
The HSRG examined a range of hatchery scenarios for the Lower Columbia review, then crafted a proposed solution. The report assesses current management practices at state, federal and private hatcheries that produce 23 Chinook stocks, harvest management and habitat conditions.
Most of the programs are now "inconsistent with stated conservation objectives," according to a summary of the findings. "The HSRG and others have concluded that a major concern with these programs is the effect hatchery strays have on the long-term fitness of naturally spawning population."
Hatchery fish now dominate natural Chinook escapement to spawning grounds for most of nine "primary" Chinook populations in the Lower Columbia, comprising more than 50 percent of the fish on the spawning grounds. The Chinook stocks are designated as primary, contributing or stabilizing, depending on their importance to the recovery of the ESU.
"Hatchery stocks need to be managed as either genetically segregated from naturally spawning populations or as genetically integrated with natural populations," the summary says.
For segregated programs involving primary populations, the HSRG says the number of hatchery-origin fish spawning in the wild should be less than 5 percent. For integrated programs, the proportion of natural-origin broodstock used in hatcheries should exceed the proportion of hatchery-origin fish spawning naturally by a 2:1 ratio, the HSRG says.
Estimates of current conditions for hatchery operation and harvest regimes "reveal that no primary or contributing Chinook populations in the lower Columbia currently meet the broodstock goals described above," the summary said.
The 128-page preliminary findings make recommendations for each of the programs. The report and summary can be found at: (http://hatcheryreform.us/prod/default.aspx)
"We could not do it with hatchery reforms alone," consultant Steve Smith said of the attempts to do build scenarios that would achieve conservation goals for wild fish. Smith, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Paul Kline and Peter Paquet, all HSRG members, summarized the findings for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council during its meeting last week in Spokane. Paquet is the NPCC's manager for wildlife and resident fish.
But adding ocean and freshwater harvest changes to the mix, "moved them up to a much higher level of productivity and adaptability to habitat," Smith said.
"We achieved conservation objectives and found we could actually increase harvests" in some cases.
The HSRG's preliminary findings conclude that, "in order to achieve their stated conservation and harvest goals, the managers must implement the following reforms:
1. Implement effective integrated or segregated hatchery broodstock management practices to achieve broodstock standards by including appropriate numbers of natural-origin fish in hatchery broodstock and/or limiting the number of hatchery-origin fish spawning naturally.
To this end, the following are recommended:
-- Increase differential harvest of hatchery fish through the use of in-river selective gear and weirs. This includes developing harvest methods and gear that enable selective removal of hatchery fish with low mortality of natural fish.
-- Spatially and temporally segregate fisheries to target harvest on hatchery fish.
-- Rear and release fish in ways that improve homing to the hatchery.
-- Increase the use of selective harvest in ocean fisheries.
-- Modify infrastructure so that facilities are capable of meeting natural and hatchery broodstock management goals.
-- Mark all hatchery fish. These goals can be accomplished only if hatchery fish can be reliably distinguished from natural-origin fish.
2. Assure that ecological impacts of hatchery structures and operations are minimized and at least meet all regulatory requirements (i.e. water withdrawal and discharge, fish passage and screening)."
The HSRG also said habitat improvements are also necessary to achieve recovery of Lower Columbia Chinook populations.
"The analysis of the Lower Columbia Chinook ESU suggests that the benefits of habitat quality improvements would double if combined with hatchery reforms. Unless hatchery and harvest reforms are implemented, the potential benefits of current or improved habitat cannot be fully realized."
Similar draft reports for coho, steelhead, and chum programs in the lower Columbia Region will be posted in the coming weeks. The HSRG now moves on to the Upper Columbia to begin its review of hatcheries there.
A need is to do "anything we can do to remove those unwanted hatchery fish" - those that might stray onto spawning grounds or that are in surplus of production needs, Smith said. That can be done with tributary weirs near the hatcheries that allow a sorting of the fish, or with selective fisheries that allow that allow the release of wild salmon unharmed.
The modeling "began to show that we could get the same result using harvest practices" than they could with expensive weirs, said Paquet. Additionally, increased harvests would provide an economic boost.
Idaho Councilor Jim Kempton noted that increased hatchery harvests in the ocean and lower river would also net Chinook salmon from Idaho hatcheries, thus reducing the supply intended for Idaho fishers.
Paquet said that is an issue that will have to be dealt with, before the process is finalized and before any of the panel's recommendations are implemented.
More details of review will be provided in forthcoming technical reports, as will the results of similar analyses conduction on other Columbia and Snake river species and ESUs. Final recommendations will be published once the review of all Columbia Basin regions are complete, probably toward the end of next year, Paquet said.