Hatchery system future still in limbo

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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No timetable is set for the release of a key federal report about the long-term future of the Columbia River hatchery system.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has been working since 2004 on an environmental impact statement for "Columbia River Basin Hatchery Operations and the Funding of the Mitchell Act Programs.''

Called the Mitchell Act EIS, the 1,100-page document is about 21/2 inches thick when measured by a ruler.

It's hugely important, because it will guide decisions over which hatcheries receive federal money. It also will be used in the federal government's review of individual hatcheries under the Endangered Species Act.

The Mitchell Act was passed by Congress in 1938 to compensate for hydroelectric and other development in the Columbia Basin.

Mitchell Act money pays for all or portions of Grays, Fallert Creek, Toutle, Kalama Falls, Skamania, Washougal, Klickitat, Carson, Little White Salmon and Spring Creek hatcheries.

The $11 million in Mitchell Act hatchery money finances about half the salmon and steelhead production in the Columbia River basin. It fuels a sport-commercial harvest of about 250,000 fish.

The draft EIS was released in summer 2010 and has generated 387 letters in response and more than 1,300 individual comments, said Allyson Purcell, NMFS project manager.

Federal fisheries officials are reviewing the comments.

The draft report had five scenarios among which included continuing the status quo, ending funding and closing all the Mitchell Act programs, emphasizing the Willamette and lower Columbia area or emphasizing hatcheries and conservation in the interior of the Columbia Basin.

Rob Jones, regional chief of NMFS’ Hatcheries and Inland Fisheries branch, said NMFS is not proposing any of the scenarios, or even saying they are the only choices.

"We are laying everything on the table for people to see so we can move on to tailoring a preferred approach,'' he said.

But the timeline for the preferred approach remains unclear.

"I would think we'll have a preliminary out by summer,'' Purcell said. "But it's still really too early to say.''

Odds and ends

Terns prefer steelhead — Much has been written about the predation of young, out-migratintg salmon and steelhead by Caspian terns at the mouth of the Columbia River.

It turns out, the birds prefer steelhead.

"Caspian terns kind of prefer steelhead as a delicacy,'' said Brian Allee of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "They like to eat steelhead smolts, which I think is really quite unfortunate. The steelhead smolts are very large....They are selecting for steelhead.''