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Federal government considers cuts in Columbia River salmon hatcheries

Federal government considers cuts in Columbia River salmon hatcheries

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PORTLAND - Federal biologists will recommend four options for dealing with salmon hatchery programs that feed into the Columbia River Basin, the toughest of which would pull federal dollars from the programs.

If that step is taken, the Oregonian newspaper reported, it would halve the number of Columbia Basin steelhead and salmon taken every year.

Less-severe options are in the environmental impact statement being considered by the National Marine Fisheries Service, but all of it comes amid grim environmental news. Hatchery fish interbreed with wild fish, making wild fish more prone to disease. Hatchery fish also take up habitat and food sources, and sometimes prey on wild fish.

After the government installed dams across the basin in the last century, hatcheries were put in to replace the wild fish the dams killed off.

The idea was that hatchery fish could come to replace wild fish. But, without natural selection, hatchery fish are regarded as inferior to the wild fish.

"We're trying to recover (wild) fish while providing for all the other uses that people want," said Rob Jones, chief of National Marine Fisheries Services' salmon recovery division. "All of us would rather see a Columbia Basin that produced enough fish to where we didn't need hatcheries. That's not the reality right now."

The National Marine Fisheries Services' report will guide distribution of federal dollars to the Columbia River Basin's hatcheries. The 178 hatchery programs operate at 80 hatcheries, more than one-third funded through the federal money.

The Bonneville Power Administration and other federal agencies help pay for the rest, and many hatchery programs are operated by tribes who have fished the basin for centuries.

Tribal fishing revenue in the basin topped $3.4 million in 2007, according to the report. Mike Matylewich, head of fish management for the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, said it would be a mistake to move too quickly in withholding federal money.

Matylewich said hatchery operators are trying to limit the impact on wild fish, but said tribes still rely on high hatchery production

"If it was simply about wild fish, that'd be one question," Matylewich said. "But it needs to fit into the larger social structure, and that makes things a whole lot more complicated."

Jones, of the fisheries services, said flat federal funding has led hatcheries to be a "a mixed bag" in the Columbia River Basin, but said hatcheries have improved in the last 15 years. They've taken steps that include switching to stock closer genetically to wild fish, which reduces the damage from interbreeding.

The report draft is open to public comment until November. After that, the fisheries services will pick one of the four options or some combination of them.

 

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