California needs to dramatically reform its fish hatcheries in order to maintain healthy salmon and steelhead populations, according to a major new study.
The $2 million study, released Tuesday by state and federal wildlife agencies, concludes nearly two years of work by a panel of fishery experts. It found, among other things, that the state lacks standard protocols to manage the 40 million salmon it produces each year at eight hatcheries. It also does not do enough field monitoring to fully understand the fate of all those fish.
The hatcheries, most of them on the Sacramento River and its tributaries, were built to atone for the spawning habitat eliminated by dams. But artificial breeding can also weaken the wild salmon that remain, making the entire population more vulnerable to environmental disruptions.
To avoid those negative effects, the study proposes big changes to strengthen individual salmon runs and improve what managers know about them, including: n"Hatcheries should end a long-standing practice of trucking juvenile salmon to San Francisco Bay for release. Instead, all salmon should be released into the rivers at the hatcheries where they are raised. This will prevent them from "straying" into other rivers when they return from the ocean to spawn as adults. n"All the juvenile salmon produced at hatcheries should be marked with a coded-wire tag to better track their fate. Currently, just 25 percent are tagged. n"The
The recommendations generally follow practices already used with hatchery salmon in Oregon and Washington. Some are sure to be controversial. The trucking of juvenile salmon, for instance, is seen by many fishermen as essential to protect young Sacramento River salmon from pollution and predators in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The study comes amid one of the best salmon fishing years in a decade, which follows four of the worst years ever recorded. These dramatic swings are a reminder that hatcheries are important, but can also weaken native salmon runs.
"Our hatcheries are a means to an end, not the end in themselves," said Chuck Bonham, California Department of Fish and Game director.
The study's findings are recommendations only. Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operate the hatcheries, expect to adopt some of the monitoring and management recommendations as early as this fall. Others will take more time, money and manpower.
Both agencies face a delicate balancing act. Because the hatcheries produce most of the salmon that end up on dinner plates, changing current practices holds a risk that fish populations and fishing opportunities may decline while the recommendations are carried out.
"We're going to be sure the recommendations are implemented so that we do no harm," said Ren Lohoefener, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The study can be found online at www.cahatcheryreview.com.