A New Look At Hatcheries

This is a time of great change in the management of the salmon resource in the State of Washington. Listings of several local salmon stocks under the Endangered Species Act have required us to re-examine many of our approaches to the way we manage salmon.

Our use of hatcheries is one example. Today, the tribes, as well as state and federal agencies, are looking at salmon hatcheries in new ways.

Once viewed by many simply as “factories” for producing salmon, now we are reforming hatchery practices to help recover and conserve wild salmon populations while providing sustainable fisheries for Indian and non-Indian fishermen. It�s just one of the many efforts by the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington in the battle for wild salmon recovery.

While the tribes have made efforts over the past decade to reduce impacts of hatcheries on wild salmon stocks – such as carefully timing releases of young hatchery salmon into rivers to avoid competition for food and habitat with young wild salmon – a lack of funding has prevented the tribes from applying a comprehensive, systematic approach to hatchery reform.

Now, thanks to the efforts of Washington�s congressional delegation – most notably Senator Gorton and Representative Dicks – the treaty tribes, Washington Department of Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service will share $3.6 million this year to conduct much-needed research, monitoring and evaluation of hatchery practices at the approximately 150 tribal, state and federal hatchery facilities in western Washington. Continued funding for this effort will be critical to its overall success.

Federal legislation has created an independent Hatchery Scientific Review Group to provide scientific oversight for tribal, state and federal hatchery practices reform and to provide recommendations for implementation of scientific goals and strategies. A top priority of the tribal and state co-managers under the hatchery reform initiative will be to complete Hatchery Genetic Management Plans for each species at each hatchery on Puget Sound. The plans, due in late June, will provide a picture of how stocks and hatcheries should be managed, and will serve as a tool for implementing hatchery reform. The plans are especially important in light of efforts to respond to ESA listings of Puget Sound chinook and other salmon species in western Washington. In fact, the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to rely on these plans for its decisions on whether hatchery practices could constitute a �take� of salmonids listed under the ESA.

Already, some salmon enhancement facilities have been switched from producing hatchery fish to restoring wild fish through broodstocking and supplementation. Through these programs, wild salmon are captured and spawned at a hatchery. Their offspring are then reared in the facility and later released in various locations within the watershed to increase their chances for survival. Such efforts help preserve and rebuild wild salmon runs that might otherwise disappear.

Hatchery reform is part of an integrated strategy for salmon recovery.

The tribal and state co-managers are responding to declining wild salmon populations through improved planning processes like Comprehensive Coho and Comprehensive Puget Sound Chinook, which seek to protect and restore adequate freshwater habitat and to ensure that enough adult salmon reach the spawning grounds to recover the stocks. The goal is to restore the productivity and diversity of wild salmon stocks from Puget Sound and the Washington coast to levels that can support treaty and non-treaty fisheries. As part of the effort, recovery goals and comprehensive recovery plans are being developed for all salmon species in western Washington. Specific recovery plans are being developed for each watershed to guide how harvest, habitat and hatcheries will be managed.

The treaty Indian tribes in western Washington already have made significant harvest reductions to protect weak wild stocks. In fact, over the past 25 years, treaty tribal salmon harvests have been reduced by more than 80 percent. This has come at a great cost to the spiritual, cultural and economic well-being of the tribes.

For 2000, the tribes are planning conservative fisheries that are more restrictive than last year in order to protect weak wild salmon stocks, especially coho. While recognizing there are some strong hatchery chinook returns expected, tribal fisheries will be designed to contribute to the rebuilding of Puget Sound chinook, which have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

All of these steps will have little effect, however, if there are no similar efforts to protect salmon habitat. Lost and damaged salmon habitat has been, and continues to be, the main reason for the decline of wild salmon.

We are confident, however, that by working together – all of us – we can achieve our goal of returning wild salmon stocks to abundance. Reforming hatchery practices is another step on the road to wild salmon recovery.