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Hatching a Plan for Northwest Salmon: Conference Highlights Fish Stock Restoration

Fish hatcheries built below the dams in the Pacific Northwest have replenished salmon stocks for downstream and ocean fishermen for decades, while upstream, wild runs where treaty tribes fish have dwindled. Now tribes report that hatcheries can serve another purpose—to restore and strengthen wild stocks by allowing them to breed with hatchery fish, a controversial practice that seems to be refuting experts’ fears that the wild fish stocks would be weakened.

The use of hatcheries to increase natural spawning fish upstream and bolster fish production for all fishermen was a prominent theme in the Future of Our Salmon 2012 Conference in Portland, Oregon, hosted by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) on October 18 and 19. The two-day meeting on hatchery policy included scientific presentations, case studies, a First Foods fisheries management model, and presentations on building partnerships between tribes, federal and state agencies. More than 200 people attended, including tribal members, state and federal agencies, policymakers, scientists and recreational and commercial fishermen.

As long as dams exist, hatcheries are necessary and effective restoration tools, said Kat Brigham, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) and CRITFC chairwoman. Brigham, speaking to Indian Country Today Media Network, said the majority of hatcheries were built below the dams, not where tribes live or by the streams where fish return to spawn. “Hatcheries were presented to tribal leaders—when the dams were built—to mitigate for their impact. We don’t want to fish in front of a hatchery. We want the fish back in the tributaries.”

The hydropower system in the Pacific Northwest, a series of 31 dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries, produces some of the cheapest electricity in the nation, power that is managed and delivered to the region by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). Power generation“has come at a cost, particularly to Native Americans (who) did not share until recently in the economic benefit, and created tremendous harm to fisheries,” said Steve Wright, BPA Administrator, in his keynote address. BPA sells electricity to the Pacific Northwest and in the last several years, has invested approximately $700 million annually to restore habitat and protect fish and wildlife.

Critics of hatchery propagation programs object to the practice of mingling hatchery fish with wild fish and cite research (Molecular Ecology, 2007) that proved that hatchery fish diluted the genetic robustness of wild stocks. Two cases are moving through the federal courts in Washington State and Oregon that use the Endangered Species Act to challenge the effects of hatchery fish on rebuilding salmon runs in rivers where dams were recently removed. The plaintiffs in Wild Fish Conservancy vs. National Park Service and Native Fish Society v. National Marine Fisheries Serviceassert that hatcheries have a negative impact on wild fish.

Yet, a study published this month in the same journal, Molecular Ecology, contradicted earlier research by demonstrating the effectiveness of hatchery programs used to supplement summer chinook populations. The long-term study, conducted by the Nez Perce Tribe and the University of Idaho’s Hagerman Experiment Station, showed that supplementation programs can boost endangered fish populations without decreasing productivity and without significant genetic impact.

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“Whether or not we like the hatcheries, they will be here as part of the mitigation promise,” said CRITFC Executive Director Paul Lumley, Yakama Indian Nation, in his opening remarks at the conference. “Pure and simple, hatcheries are needed for recovery and to fulfill the federal government's treaty promise. Tribes are using hatcheries to bring the salmon back.”

Two successful projects on the Snake River Basin, showcased at the conference by the Nez Perce Tribe, demonstrate how mixing wild and hatchery fish did just that: replenished salmon stocks so that tribes could fish in their usual and accustomed places, upholding both tradition and treaty rights.

The reservation lands of the Nez Perce Tribe are located above eight dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers. By the mid-90s, fewer than 1,000 Snake River fall chinook salmon had returned to their home river, said Nez Perce member Joel Moffett, CRITFC vice chairman. The fall chinook was listed under the Endangered Species Act and potentially threatened the tribe’s treaty right to fish. A new hatchery management program supplementing natural populations with hatchery-reared stock shifted the numbers dramatically. By 2011 more than 40,000 fish had returned.

This was “a success story for the tribe,” Moffett said. “Using a hatchery only for harvest purposes, from the tribal perspective, is wrong management. Hatcheries can be designed to bring back naturally spawning fish. We’ve halted the decline, and now we’re slowly climbing out of that hole and increasing the run. We’re a long way from historic numbers. In the big picture, the hatcheries that are used appropriately and are well designed, accomplish two goals—they provide harvest and bring back wild fish.”

Another Nez Perce strategy, the Johnson Creek Artificial Propagation Enhancement Project, entailed studying the DNA of returning adults to learn how successful hatchery fish were at mating in the wild (productivity) as compared to wild fish. The 13-year study in a tributary of the Snake River, nearly 700 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean, demonstrated that the hatchery did not reduce the fitness of wild fish and can help to increase populations and minimize impacts to wild stocks.

In the Creation story, said Eric Quaempts, Yakama, director of the Umatilla Natural Resources Department, it was the First Foods that stepped up when the Creator asked who would take care of Indian people. The cultural importance of these foods, especially salmon, has become the management policy for the tribe’s natural resources program. “It’s up to us,” said Quaempts, “to take care of the foods that take care of us.”