A team of scientists recommended Tuesday that the federal government conduct an exhaustive review of salmon hatcheries in the Columbia River basin before expanding the hatchery program.
The recommendation highlighted a 35-part presentation the panel made to the Northwest Power Planning Council, the agency that must decide later this summer how to allocate $127 million from the Bonneville Power Administration for fish and wildlife preservation projects.
Richard Williams, an Idaho ecologist and chairman of the scientists’ panel, said the hatcheries haven’t been effective in restoring salmon runs on the Columbia and its tributaries.
“There’s a growing concern and awareness in the fish and wildlife community that hatcheries haven’t lived up to their expectations,” Williams said. “We’re saying hold off on major investment until a review is done.”
The BPA, which sells electricity generated by federal dams in the Columbia River Basin, is required by law to mitigate the impact on fish and wildlife from construction and dam operation.
A large chunk of the BPA money is spent on hatcheries, which grow young salmon and introduce them into existing wild runs.
Many environmentalists say hatcheries weaken efforts to bring back the salmon population because hatchery-produced fish compete with wild stocks, spread disease and dilute the gene pool.
The problem gets worse when hatcheries produce large volumes of fish, giving the impression the salmon runs are on the rebound, says Diane Valantine of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.
“When we’re just producing fish, we’re really causing problems instead of solving them,” Valantine said. “Not building new hatcheries is certainly a step in the right direction. The next step is to figure out which ones are working and which ones should be closed.”
Even the chairman of the Northwest Power Planning Council, John Etchart, said it may be time to rethink the BPA’s emphasis on hatcheries.
“At some point, the recovery plan built on hatcheries and the recovery plan built on wild fish collide,” Etchart said.
But hatchery managers say the program should be improved, not hindered by delaying construction of new hatcheries.
“There are major changes that need to be made, but a moratorium would not be prudent,” said Roy Sampsel, a consultant who works with some Columbia Basin Indian tribes who run hatcheries.
Others say the hatcheries are adapting to changing needs on their own, and that the scientists didn’t do enough on-site research to make an informed evaluation.
The BPA has an overall budget of $435 million for wildlife recovery projects, but only $127 million is available at the discretion of the Northwest Power Planning Council.
Fish and wildlife officials from various state, federal and tribal agencies asked the BPA for 428 projects totaling $164.3 million. The council must cut or scale down some of the projects to get down to the limit of $127 million.
The council will gather public comment on the scientists’ recommendations, and issue a final report on which projects to finance by Sept. 15.
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