The National Marine Fisheries Service unveiled today a wide variety of changes proposed for the operation of lower Columbia River hatcheries and their releases of fall chinook, coho and steelhead.
In summary, the changes would result in a moderate reduction in fall chinook production, shift some coho from the lower Columbia River to central Washington and tweak winter and summer steelhead stocks primarily in Southwest Washington streams.
Rob Jones, chief of NMFS’ hatcheries and inland fisheries section, told a conference call the changes are part of a 20-year process to operate hatcheries in a way that do not impede recovery of salmon and steelhead listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
However, the planning for future hatchery programs has been given impetus by a lawsuit from the Wild Fish Conservancy challenging the hatchery operations.
Jones called the proposals “the next generation of hatchery operations.’’ They will be formalized by mid-January.
The Washington and Oregon departments of Fish and Wildlife actually operate the hatcheries, with funding coming from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The proposals calls for a 24 percent reduction in the number of chinook released from federally funded hatcheries downstream of Bonneville Dam from 18.1 million young fish now to 13.7 million by the 2022 brood year.
However, with no changes at Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery, the reduction for releases downstream of Bonneville Dam is only 20 percent.
When Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery in eastern Skamania County produces its full 10.5 million fall chinook, the total reduction drops to 12 percent.
No change is planned at Cowlitz Salmon Hatchery, which produces 3.4 million to 3.5 million fall chinook. That program is paid for by Tacoma Power as mitigation for the hydroelectric dams on the Cowlitz River.
Larrie LaVoy of the National Marine Fisheries Service estimated the 20 percent reduction in lower Columbia fall chinook releases would lessen the sport catch in the popular Buoy 10 fishery at the Columbia River mouth by about 6 percent.
The cut in the catch between Tongue Point and the Lewis River was projected to be 4 percent, and 1 percent between the Lewis River and Bonneville Dam.
Fall chinook releases will be discontinued from net pens in Deep River. Fall chinook reductions are proposed at Big Creek, plus the Kalama, North Fork Toutle and Washougal rivers.
There will be increases in Oregon’s Klaskanine and Bonneville hatcheries, said James Dixon, NMFS’ Mitchell Act coordinator.
The Mitchell Act was passed by Congress in 1938 and pays for hatchery operations as partial compensation for losses caused by the Columbia River dams.
Dixon also said there will be a gradual shift to using broodstock for the hatcheries that reside in area, rather than using adults for spawning from streams farther away.
Dixon said the changes would be phased in, starting with young fish produced by 2017 spawning parents and completed by 2022.
Changes in the chinook abundance would result when those 2017 fish return as adults starting in 2020.
Lower Columbia fall chinook are only a small portion of the overall fall chinook run to the Columbia. There is considerable hatchery production upstream of Bonneville Dam and a large, healthy wild-spawning population in the Hanford Reach, the name given to a stretch of the Columbia just downstream of Priest Rapids Dam.
Changes are on the way for coho and steelhead, too.
The federal fish agency plans to reduce by 15 percent the number of early-returning coho and by 11 percent the number of late-return coho it pays Washington and Oregon to rear and release.
Early coho return from August to mid-September. Late coho enter the Columbia River from late September into November.
Early coho releases in the lower Columbia would go from 2 million to 1.7 million. Late coho would be reduced from 989,000 to 883,000.
Coho financed by the federal government are only about one-third of overall coho releases and one-quarter of overall late coho releases in the lower Columbia. Large coho programs on the Cowlitz and Lewis rivers as compensation for the dams make up the lion’s share of lower Columbia releases.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is planning to add a coho program at Ringold Springs near the Tri-Cities and release 1 million coho, which, numerically, would more than offset the lower Columbia reductions.
Steelhead releases in the lower Columbia tributaries financed by the Mitchell Act would stay unchanged at 762,000 winter steelhead and 655,000 summer steelhead.
However, changes are coming to the broodstocks to be used, Dixon said.
Winter steelhead originating in Chambers Creek, a Puget Sound tributary, will no longer be funded by NMFS in areas where there a steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The last of the Chambers Creek fish will be released this spring in the Coweeman, Kalama and Washougal rivers plus Salmon and Rock creeks.
A winter steelhead that originates from the Kalama River will be developed additionally and used in Southwest Washington streams.
Skamania stock summer steelhead, which originated in the Washougal River, will continue in the Elochoman, South Fork Toutle, Washougal and Klickitat rivers.
A native Kalama River summer steelhead stock will be used in that watershed.
Jones said the proposals now will undergo additional analysis.
“It’s a very complex matter with lots of moving parts,’’ he said. “If it doesn’t work, there will be future changes.’’