NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region has completed a review of fish hatcheries on the Columbia River, clearing the way for the agency to distribute funds under the federal Mitchell Act that will keep the hatcheries operating while reducing impacts to threatened and endangered species.
The review came in the form of a biological opinion that analyzed the effects of the Mitchell Act hatchery programs on vulnerable salmon and steelhead species protected under the Endangered Species Act. Hatcheries can have positive and negative effects on salmon and steelhead recovery, and the biological opinion assessed a proposal for funding 62 hatchery programs in the Columbia River Basin designed to reduce impacts on the recovery of these protected wild fish.
The Mitchell Act provides federal funding through NOAA Fisheries for hatchery programs operated by the states of Oregon and Washington, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Yakama Nation, and the Nez Perce Tribe. The programs produce fish to offset the impacts of development that has reduced the capacity of the Columbia River to produce salmon and steelhead. Mitchell Act funding has supported more than 40 percent of the annual salmon and steelhead catch in the Columbia River, and helps sustain tribal and non-tribal fisheries in the ocean off Washington and Oregon.
NOAA Fisheries signed the biological opinion on January 15. NOAA Fisheries delayed funding for certain hatcheries until the document was complete. The biological opinion includes a series of accompanying changes in hatchery operations, including:
- A halt to the use of hatchery broodstock that originates outside the Columbia River to reduce genetic risk to native fish stocks.
- Reduced hatchery production in some places.
- Increased hatchery production where stray hatchery fish are not a threat to recovery of protected salmon and steelhead.
- Additional research and monitoring to better track and understand the effects of hatchery fish on wild salmon and steelhead populations.
The changes would be phased in over several years, with continued monitoring as they proceed. NOAA Fisheries is working with the Pacific Fishery Management Council to gather and consider input from fishing communities and other stakeholders on how to implement and monitor the changes.
NOAA Fisheries previously published an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that analyzed the effects of Mitchell Act hatchery funding. The EIS included a preferred action that prioritized funding for hatchery programs that take steps to minimize impacts on protected wild salmon and steelhead populations.
Hatchery fish can pose risk to wild fish by overwhelming spawning grounds and reducing the genetic fitness of natural stocks. Hatchery fish also use the limited food and habitat that wild fish depend on.
Under the biological opinion, releases of hatchery fall Chinook in the Columbia would drop from about 18 million per year to about 14 million per year. Hatchery steelhead would not be released into wild fish refuges, allowing wild steelhead in the lower Columbia River to rebuild their natural diversity.
Releases of hatchery coho salmon could increase by 4 percent because they pose less risk to protected wild stocks, NOAA Fisheries concluded.
Reductions in Chinook salmon hatchery releases would reduce some salmon catches in the lower Columbia and along the Oregon and Washington coasts. NOAA Fisheries estimates that catches in the North of Falcon non-treaty troll and sport fisheries would drop 7 percent, while catches in treaty-Indian troll fisheries would decline 6 percent, and the troll fishery off the Oregon Coast would see a 4 percent decline relative to average catches from 2012 to 2016.
Increases in coho salmon hatchery production would increase coho salmon available for fishing and harvest purposes in the ocean off Oregon and Washington and in the Columbia River.
“The science tells us that hatcheries can have benefits but also present risks we have to consider,” said Rob Jones, chief of Anadromous Production and Inland Fisheries for NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region.
“Every hatchery program offers its own unique set of benefits and risks and we’re tailoring hatchery operations to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks. We worked closely with hatchery operators to reach decisions that accomplish this through increases in fish production at some programs and decreases at others.”