Hatcheries give nod to environment in new era of fish management
By Joyce Campbell
Methow Valley News
A review team of scientists assessing regional fish hatcheries recommend promoting local adaptation of fish in the Methow River through changes at the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery.
The scientific viewpoint has shifted from propagating fish as a commodity to viewing fish as a resource.
"Now the biologist has to think in terms of how that resource has to survive on its own in the environment, rather than changing the environment," said Columbia Basin Hatchery Review team senior scientist Donald Campton.
"In a two-environment system, the natural environment has a greater influence than the hatchery environment," said Campton. He said if fish are prevented from spawning naturally and escape the rigors of having to spawn in gravel and hatch under natural conditions, the overall ability to produce in the wild is diminished over five or six generations.
The review team’s report includes the details of using hatchery facilities and management to maximize the development of a gene pool of naturally spawning, native-origin fish.
Their report recommends building an improved collection facility near the Winthrop hatchery to allow trapping and sorting of spawning spring Chinook and steelhead that would increase the number of native-origin species collected.
Spring Chinook and steelhead not needed for propagation could be distributed to sites on the Methow River and to other rivers in the region for natural spawning.
The Winthrop National Fish Hatchery is one of three Leavenworth Complex hatcheries operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The hatcheries were constructed in 1940 and 1941 to mitigate losses of salmon and steelhead habitats associated with the construction and operation of Grand Coulee Dam.
The team recommended that the other two hatcheries, in Leavenworth and Entiat, transition to an integrated program with natural-origin and hatchery-origin adults used for broodstock, similar to the Winthrop hatchery’s model for conservation and harvest.
"Winthrop is one step ahead of the other two hatcheries," said Campton. "Winthrop already went through a major change about five years ago," he added, referring to a decision to terminate a program using Winthrop-Carson stock in favor of a program that used more native spring Chinook broodstock from the Methow River.
The federally funded hatchery now propagates the Methow Composite stock, whose ancestry is estimated to be 25 to 30 percent hatchery-origin, Winthrop-Carson fish and 70 to 75 percent natural-origin fish.
"From an ancestry perspective, the Methow Composite stock represents the natural population in the Methow River that existed in the 1990s," said Campton. "By using the hatchery to propagate the local population, we can increase the abundance of that stock in the short term, and use the hatchery to help maintain that population and prevent it from going extinct."
The team recommended reducing the size of the 600,000-smolts-per-year spring Chinook program to allow the development of a self-sustaining steelhead broodstock program.
The hatchery has operated a steelhead program since 1996 to support recreational fishing and contribute to the recovery of ESA-listed (threatened) steelhead in the Methow River. Out of 125,000 eyed-egg embryos, an average of 118,400 yearlings are released annually.
The success of that program has been marginal, and the river is currently closed to steelhead fishing due to low numbers of fish. While 311,000 steelhead have been counted at Bonneville Dam, just 6,186 steelhead have passed Wells Dam as of Sunday (Oct. 22), most of those headed for the Methow River.
The team recommended developing a genetically integrated steelhead broodstock at the Winthrop hatchery. Broodstock would be developed from natural and hatchery-origin adults in the Methow River. Currently, fish are trapped and spawned at Wells Dam and the fertilized eggs are transported to Winthrop for hatching, rearing and release.
As part of the new strategy to promote local adaptation, a recommended collection facility would sort and select steelhead upstream of the Foghorn Dam near the hatchery. Surplus steelhead could be distributed among upper release sites on the Methow, Chewuch and Twisp rivers.
Rehabilitation of some spawning, holding and rearing facilities is also recommended to accommodate the steelhead program.
Winthrop NFH also provides facilities for the coho reintroduction program of the Yakama Nation. Broodstock is trapped at Wells Dam or at the Winthrop hatchery, and spawned and incubated for a year and a half before being released into the river.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s three-year review of its 21 salmon and steelhead hatcheries in the Columbia River Basin was conducted "to ensure that all federal hatcheries contribute to sustainable fisheries and the conservation of naturally spawning salmon, steelhead and other fish."
The Columbia River Basin Hatchery Review team recently released an Assessment and Recommendation Report for the Leavenworth, Entiat and Winthrop national fish hatcheries for public comment. The public comment period is open until Nov. 13.
The report can be viewed online at www.fws.gov/pacific/Fisheries/Hatcheryreview/