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Supplementation: The solution to saving salmon, by Mary Bodine

Posted by: | November 26, 2012 Comments Off on Supplementation: The solution to saving salmon, by Mary Bodine |

Columbia River salmon have long been an iconic symbol of the Pacific Northwest.   Salmon were used from time immemorial by American Indian tribes throughout Oregon, Idaho, and Washington, providing subsistence and spirituality.  Columbia River Indians pulling giant salmon from the swift moving water would dip-net from the banks above rapids at Celilo Falls.  But, with the development of the canning process, salmon became a targeted commodity because of its abundance and new transportability. As demand began to increase, salmon populations began to decline. In addition to increased consumption, salmon populations also declined because of environmental change.  Throughout the 1900’s numerous dams were built by the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers to generate power, sold and traded by the Bonneville Power Administration.  The new Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) provided the necessary electrical infrastructure for the young, and quickly growing, northwest.

The FCRPS arguably provides the cleanest, cheapest, and most reliable energy in the United States.  In addition, Bonneville Power Administration is a self-funded agency that is not dependent on federal appropriations, but instead is independently funded through rate payers and ultimately customers.  Despite these benefits, the dams have caused some salmon populations to near extinction, but over the past 30 years, tribes, state governments, and federal agencies have worked cooperatively to revitalize salmon populations.  This revitalization has occurred through habitat restoration, improved salmon passage at dams, protection of downstream navigating fry, and supplementation programs.

Unlike traditional hatchery programs, supplementation programs aim at producing stocks that return to streams to spawn naturally.  Local northwest tribes have taken on the role of implementing supplementation programs and operating the facilities.  In Washington, the Yakama tribe operates the Cle Clum Tribal hatchery and supplementation program and similarly, the Umatilla tribes of Oregon and the Nez Perce tribes of Idaho both operate and maintain supplementation facilities.  The facilities utilize state of the art techniques to produce salmon that when released will return to natural stream beds and spawn in the wild helping to reestablish populations and ensure that they remain sustainable for years to come.  These supplementation facilities are critical to overcoming the problems associated with traditional hatchery fish.

One problem with traditional hatchery fish is that they become domesticated through their juvenile life.  For example, hatchery fish will not develop any markings because they live in concrete tubs, they become desensitized to humans because they associate workers with food, and they are not afraid of prey because during their captivity they were protected by nets covering the raceways.  The fish raised in these typical conditions die at a higher rate because, simply, they did not know how to live in the wild.  Supplementation programs try to take these and other environment factors into consideration by developing facilities with “S” shaped raceways,  better camouflaging, using more natural gravel bottoms and planting riparian coverage.   These small changes have helped in the survivability of young salmon as they travel to the ocean.  Another technique is the utilization of acclimation ponds.  Acclimation ponds are used to assimilate the fish to a specific region of a steam or river so that when adult salmon return from the ocean to spawn they return to a section of the stream and not the rearing facility.  This helps the fish to spawn naturally in an attempt to revitalized naturally returning salmon populations which help to create sustainable socks.

Although salmon populations have been steadily increasing since 2000, many oppose the programs arguing that supplementation results in genetic modifications that are detrimental to the overall fitness of a species.  In Wild Fish Conservancy v. National Park Service the Fish Conservancy argued, amongst other things, that the tribal hatchery program threatened endangered salmon species constituting a take under Section 7 of the ESA.  Opponents also argued that supplementation weakens the population’s fitness because of genetic modifications.  In response to criticism, and to avoid jeopardizing the sustainability of salmon stocks the tribal facilities use a large portion of their budget on monitoring and evaluation to ensure that minor differences in the facility salmon are not having larger ramifications.

Perhaps much of the resistance comes from the differing concepts of what the end goals are.  It seems obvious that the goals are to have sustainable salmon populations but the way in which sustainable is defined varies for different parties and ultimately can change the ways in which the goals are met.  For tribes, sustainable refers to having fish in the river and available for harvest in traditional manners satisfying the cultural components of having salmon. This goal calls for more immediate availability of salmon populations which have been seen through the use of supplementation programs.  For some environmental groups, sustainable would mean that salmon populations increase and thrive independently and are able to reproduce naturally without any outside interference.  These goals might better be achieved through ESA enforcement, habitat preservation and restoration, and potentially dam removal. To this group, supplementation might seem like an “easy way out” or a way to ignore the real problem.   Although salmon population may be receiving a helping hand through supplementation, this is a valuable tradeoff particularly because it protects the cultural needs presently while still looking toward the future sustainability of the populations.

Coming full circle, the programs are entirely made possible through funding provided by Bonneville Power Administration under the Northwest Power Act.  The Act requires mitigation for the negative impacts of the federal hydro system on fish and wildlife and through this requirement, BPA provides land and funding to build hatchery facilities, conduct research monitoring and evaluation under the supervision of the Counsel (established under the Northwest Power Act), and general operation and maintenance costs. Through the collaborative efforts of the tribes, states, and federal agencies, salmon are beginning to return in stronger numbers then they have been seen since populations plummeted after overfishing, habitat modification, and the FCRPS.  Although supplementation programs are not flawless, they are one of the strongest means of restoring salmon populations.  They provide fish for recreation, subsistence, tribal culture, and commercial purposes.   When used along with land restoration and dam modification, supplementation can help to revitalized depleted salmon populations and help to create sustainable populations for future generations.

under: Natural Resources

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