Columbia River hatcheries would keep operating under feds' plan

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PORTLAND — A federal agency on Thursday recommended the continued operation of hatcheries in the Columbia River Basin, a with focus on programs that minimize risks to wild salmon and steelhead.

The recommendation is part of a hatchery management plan released by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

The hatcheries are funded under the Mitchell Act, a law that has provided federal dollars for fish conservation in the Columbia Basin since the 1940s.

Congress sets the level of funding, which has ranged from $10 million to $13 million annually over the past decade for hatchery operation and maintenance. NOAA distributes the money.

Located in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, Mitchell Act-funded hatchery programs account for about 45 percent of the hatchery salmon and steelhead released in the Columbia Basin each year.

The programs are mainly focused on producing fish for recreational, tribal and commercial fishing in the river and the ocean. A total of 62 hatchery programs annually produce more than 63 million fish.

When the draft plan was released in 2010, it was controversial because it included conservation scenarios that opponents feared could lead to decreased hatchery production.

The West Coast has relied on hatcheries for more than a century to rebuild dwindling fish runs decimated by overfishing, logging, mining, agriculture and hydroelectric dams.

But studies show hatchery fish can out-compete wild fish for food as they inundate rivers and oceans. Their presence also lowers the number of offspring produced by wild populations.

The government has listed adverse effects of hatchery operations as one of the factors for the decline of most endangered and threatened fish species in the basin listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Officials say the current plan’s recommendation includes some of the most stringent conservation goals, though many hatchery programs already have implemented measures to reduce impacts on wild fish, said NOAA fishery biologist James Dixon, a project lead on the plan.

“There are not many programs that are doing horribly,” he said. “Hatchery managers, whether state or federal or tribal, have all made significant strides to reduce risks associated with their programs.”

Despite this, hatchery fish continue to dominate the Columbia River Basin and wild populations are nowhere close to being recovered. Recent record fish runs were made up mostly of hatchery fish.

Several lawsuits this year in Oregon, California and Washington have challenged hatcheries to do more to keep artificially bred fish from harming wild ones.

Wild populations’ meager recovery, Dixon said, could also rest with other factors such as lack of habitat or insufficient flows in the river.

That said, hatcheries will continue to improve their practices, he said, though there isn’t a single solution on how improvements should be made.

The plan is open to public review for 60 days, following which NOAA will issue a record of decision.