Columbia River hatcheries need better options

November 26, 2010 

The National Marine Fisheries Service needs to hit the reset button on the government's approach to Columbia River hatcheries.

The agency's draft environmental study on hatchery operations is being condemned by stakeholders up and down the river.

Sports anglers, commercial operators, Native American tribes and local governments worry that the options for hatchery management outlined in the draft threaten the Columbia Basin's salmon runs.

Earlier this month, officials from Clatsop and Columbia counties in Oregon, and Pacific and Wahkiakum counties in Washington wrote to the NMFS, describing the plan as "flawed" and "inadequate."

Before that, the Columbia Basin Inter-Tribal Fish Commission warned the options outlined in the government's draft environmental impact statement likely would reduce fish runs.

The commission, which represents the Nez Perce, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Yakama tribes on fishery policies, wants to see the EIS study revised to include options for increasing hatchery production.

Four of the options outlined in the document would cut hatchery production. The most drastic would reduce the current 144 million juvenile salmon annually produced in the Columbia Basin to as few as 52 million.

The fifth option retains the status quo, but every EIS is required to consider the impact of doing nothing. The draft doesn't identify a preferred alternative.

Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said the reductions being contemplated would be "devastating" for anglers and her industry, according to the Columbia Basin Bulletin.

The fish and wildlife newsletter also reported objections from the commercial salmon industry.

"We reject the listed range of options that call for far fewer fish for the Columbia River Basin, which threaten to leave us all with reduced and failing fisheries," said Hobe Kytr of Salmon For All, a trade association representing Columbia River commercial fishermen and processors.

The critics aren't impressed with the study's scientific and technical analysis, complaining that the document overemphasizes the negative effects of hatchery salmon on natural runs and ignores the potential for modern hatchery practices to help save endangered stocks.

They also are concerned that without major revisions, the draft study will unravel several carefully crafted agreements that represent the best chance of survival for Columbia River salmon.

For example, the Columbia Basin Fish Accords -- a 10-year partnership between tribes, federal agencies, Washington, Montana, Idaho and the Bonneville Power Administration -- partly depends on hatcheries for restoring fish populations.

It's the best bet yet for resolving lawsuits over Columbia River dams and diverting money from legal expenses to practical improvements that will benefit fish.

The deal devotes $967 million during the next decade to projects to improve fish and lamprey survival in the basin.

The deal represents an essential ingredient lacking in NMFS's approach to the draft EIS on hatcheries -- collaboration.

If stakeholders had a meaningful role to play in identifying and analyzing alternatives, the document wouldn't be facing nearly universal condemnation.

NMFS needs a better plan for hatcheries than any of the five alternatives in its draft study, one that addresses the legitimate concerns raised by the document's critics.

The best way to find one is to start over.

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