Mar 12, 2012

Hatchery Fish And The Adipose Dilemma

Tribes Fight Fin Clipping

What Does The Law Say?

Two very important pieces of legislation have come to provide a framework for how fisheries are managed in the Greater Columbia and Snake River Basins:

The first one, called the Mitchell Act was passed in 1938:

The Mitchell Act specifically directs establishment of salmon hatcheries, conduct of engineering and biological surveys and experiments, and installing fish protective devices. It also authorizes agreements with State fishery agencies and construction of facilities on State-owned lands.

Essentially this act was passed as a form of mitigation, to replenish stocks that had spiraled into decline as a result of dam construction, over-harvest and habitat destruction. This law, most importantly, looked to satisfy native treaties - that list inherent rights to harvest salmon and steelhead - by bolstering fish numbers via hatcheries.

So you have free-spawning fish in the river (wild) and you have hatchery fish that are raised in pens, released into the river. It stands true that wild fish are far outnumbered by their hatch relatives…and up to 12 Salmonoid populations remain listed under the Endangered Species Act in the greater Columbia and Snake River drainages.

Over the years the argument has surfaced that the presence of hatchery fish are extremely detrimental to the health of wild salmon and steelhead populations. Competition for habitat, the spreading of disease and the ability for hatchery fish to interbreed with wild populations has created much outcry from organizations like The Native Fish Society, The Wild Steelhead Coalition, The Osprey and the Wild Salmon Center. Using many scientific studies across a diverse range of study areas, these organizations conclude that rogue hatcheries pose a threat to the very species that the ESA is trying to protect! At stake are populations of genetically diverse, strong, free spawning fish.

For reasons of science and preservation, federally funded hatchery fish must be marked by removing their adipose fins. Non-tribal fishermen are not allowed to keep any fish that do not have an adipose fin clip. Essentially, these hatchery raised fish are considered an oversupply and not an ESA listed stock. It is the Native Fish Society’s view that all these fish, if caught, should be killed and not allowed to affect the health of wild stocks. Also, the use of hatcheries in general as a way to bolster wild fish recovery should be drastically reduced, if not eliminated all together.

This outlook however, does not jive with certain groups of commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, and most importantly – it is in stark contrast to the viewpoint of The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC). This organization is the collective voice for the Warm Springs, Umatilla, Yakima and Nez Perce tribes.

US VS Oregon Management Agreement

In 2008 a legislative agreement referred to as US VS. Oregon was set into law to manage the fisheries in the Greater Columbia River watershed through 2017. This document lays down management policy for all fishing throughout the watershed. Included are harvest rates, hatchery operations, habitat concerns and how certain areas of policy might be tweaked on a case by case basis. It is a rather large document (some 146 pages) that covers all areas of species and habitat. For instance, it displays how many fish can be produced at a certain hatchery and whether or not they need to be marked. Also it gives percentage rates of allowable fish harvest for a certain species determined by the size of the run. But, the door is open for these policies to be amended on a case by case basis.

After seeing this blurb in NW Fly Fishing, I made a few phone calls. I was able to speak to the Harvest Management Biologist for the Inter-Tribal Commission, Stuart Ellis. I had a lot to try and figure out. Was this true? Could there be a full-out assault on the whole fin-clipping program?

What I learned was that not all fish that are produced in a hatchery are required to be marked as such. Federally funded hatcheries as designated through the Mitchell Act have to mark the fish with a fin clip. However, privately funded hatcheries are not required to mark fish. There are circumstances however, like the upriver tribal salmon hatcheries, that only need mark a percentage of fish – even though they were initially started with federal money. This is true for the Nez Perce Snake River Chinook hatcheries.

In 1994 the tribes and the Endangered Species Act struck a deal. The Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes were given money to start a hatchery with salmon stock from natural origin. Their goal was to boost numbers for eventual harvest. And they grew – by 2010, Spring and Summer Chinook numbers grew from 1000 fish in 1995 to 41,000 by 2010 at Lower Granite Dam. 10,000 of the 41,000 were returning fish that spawned naturally in the river. Of the fish raised at these up-river hatcheries, there is a percentage that is not marked (in the hundreds of thousands). The Nez Perce Chinook hatcheries dump upwards of 1.5 million fish annually.

I asked Stuart how it is known if a returning fish was reared naturally if it was not marked… He informed me that scale sampling data taken at Lower Granite Dam tells the story. Hatchery fish grow faster and therefore this growth difference can be seen in scale data.

So, this program is being touted as a shining success story for Salmon stocks and the fishery among the tribes and certain segments of non-tribal fishers. The numbers have grown considerably and hatchery fish are spawning on their own at least on a limited basis.

When asked whether the tribes would prefer to not mark any hatchery fish at all, he did in fact agree that this was true. But he disagreed that they were lobbying to end all marking. Instead he stated that they look to influence policy on a case by case basis. All watersheds and operations are unique and under the current US VS Oregon plan, changes are made with respect to this fact.

“Well yes, I think in a perfect world, the tribes would rather not pursue any marking of fish.”

“But you could also go further to add, that in a perfect world, they would prefer not to have hatcheries either – that wild fish numbers could be healthy enough to allow people to catch and keep what is needed.”

“Our Native Peoples do not understand releasing their catch. It does not make sense to them. Handling a fish and then throwing it back would to them, be like hunting deer with a weapon meant to injure but not kill”

“They would also prefer not to mark fish, as it is seen as an intrusion on that fish’s life. But ultimately, the main concern is just having the numbers to harvest, regardless of where they come from.”

This point, however, is what is most troublesome to conservationists wishing to ensure healthy returning run of wild fish.

A Sticky Issue

There is much science that outlines the negative impacts of hatchery fish on wild fish that are struggling to survive. Opponents to hatcheries state that if you want a healthy run of fish, it is best to concentrate our efforts on habitat and harvest – not on hatcheries. Wild fish are better able to adapt in advance to adverse watershed conditions. Their instincts are sharper, more natural and they better represent a species that will survive over the long haul. Interbreeding of hatchery and wild stocks has a dramatic effect on the quality of over-all health of the run.

There are times, as in the case of the Snake River Sockeye, where starting a run may be crucial in initiating a recovery because of its location far from the ocean, and because the run has been devastated to the point of no return. The Snake River Chinook fishery may also fall into this category, but in general, starting these programs should not be to the detriment of wild stocks that could possibly survive with alternate methods. If the goal, so it is being explained with the Nez Perce hatcheries, is to have these hatch fish return to spawn in the wild, only the sturdiest of genes seems a necessity here. But studies have shown that hatchery fish are far more liable to stray into alternate watersheds – likely having an effect on wild fish native to those streams. Rivers like the Salmon and the Clearwater are quite a ways up the road and there are many streams along the way for confused hatchery fish to get side-tracked. It is little wonder that the brunt of the Steelhead run on the Deschutes is made up of stray hatchery fish!

Many folks see the issue of not marking fish as a ploy to get more fish past fishers that concentrate lower on the Columbia River system and into tribal nets. This could very well be the case, although not an admission the CRINFC was willing to grant. I was absolutely amazed at the number of fish that are not marked throughout the entire Columbia/Snake waterway. Certain hatcheries are not required to clip any of their fish, while others clip only a fraction.

You should take a moment sometime and flip through the US VS Oregon Management Agreement. You will be struck by the numbers of hatchery origin fish that are swimming around under the disguise of wild origin (millions). If you catch one, you will have to throw it back so that fish can find a treaty-protected net. But in doing so, you likely jam that fish into the spokes of nature trying to act as it should. By releasing that fish, you take science, you squash it into a little ball and you throw it out the window.

One particular river that is close to our door is the Klickitat River. It is stated that under law, all Steelhead, Coho and Chinook of hatchery origin must be marked. Stuart Ellis did note, however, that there is a fraction of Chinook that do not get clipped because the concrete raceways are not large enough to make it feasible. Here is one instance of where even law does not extend rule.

I am left to wonder where else these infractions are occurring…

It is a polarizing issue and a sticky one at best. Tribal interests are understandable, but they should not be left to run rampant over lose guidelines under the management agreement.

When asked for comment, Native Fish Society’s, Rob Elam says,

“All hatchery fish should be clipped. And of course, the best way to ensure this is to not build them in the first place.”

Although both sides would prefer higher numbers of fish, it is clear that finding the means to accomplish this is the point of contention. At the very least, it seems that a simple fin-clip is not that much to ask - especially when it jeopardizes the very integrity of the fish that we so cherish.

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1 comment :

  1. Intersting read. I had no idea..


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