Saving Killer Whales By Increasing Salmon Production

In a January 18, 2019 post, I related the state of Washington’s plan to increase the state’s hatchery salmon production to recover salmon populations and help the endangered southern population of killer whales.  In response to an executive order by the governor of Washington, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s proposed broad measures to increase the numbers of hatchery-raised salmon smolts released into killer whale migration areas that have minimal numbers of wild salmon.  The program would also enhance commercial and sport fisheries for salmon.  Much of the hatchery program would remain committed to recovery of threatened and endangered wild salmon stocks, which would also get a boost in essential habitat restoration.

The proposal in Washington state calls for an additional 30 million smolts for the Puget Sound estuaries (near Seattle) and an additional 20 million for the Columbia River estuaries, 50 and 20 percent increases, respectively.  The proposal recognizes:

 [H]atchery practices can pose serious genetic and ecological risks to wild populations if not managed carefully with full consideration of all that has been learned over the history of salmonid hatchery programs in the Pacific Northwest. However, the design of this proposal strives to minimize such negative impacts and to afford protection to the existing wild chinook populations to the greatest extent possible.

Elements of the program would include releasing hatchery smolts in lower river and estuary areas.  The program is designed to minimize effects on wild salmon by keeping these releases outside of the normal rearing and migration routes of wild salmon.  In some cases, hatchery salmon fry would be transported to net pens in lower rivers and estuaries for rearing and eventual release of smolts near the ocean, thereby further increasing smolt survival.  Returning adult salmon would home in on such sites, creating opportunities for terminal fisheries for hatchery salmon while retaining upriver spawning grounds for wild salmon.

A similar program is being planned and tested in California in the San Francisco Bay Estuary of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.  Central Valley hatchery salmon smolts are already being trucked to the Bay and nearby coastal estuaries.  A new program element under consideration is the trucking of fry to local Bay estuary net pens for rearing.  If successful, this would create new terminal sport and commercial fisheries, while enhancing coastal fisheries and prey for the California Killer Whale populations.

One goal of the program in California would also be to shift hatchery salmon fisheries away from rearing areas and migration routes of wild salmon.  Rearing fry and releasing smolts in areas not frequented by wild salmon should reduce the effects of the hatchery program on wild salmon.  Similarly, terminal fisheries would focus harvest away from migration routes of wild salmon and reduce competition with wild salmon in spawning areas in upper rivers.  Commercial and sport fisheries would be enhanced along the coast.  New terminal fisheries would be created at estuary and coastal release sites that attract adults originally released at the sites as smolts.

If all goes well, such programs will benefit killer whales, sport and commercial fisheries, and wild salmon population (through reduced competition and better harvest management).

For more detail on Oregon and Washington Select Area Fisheries Enhancement programs see https://www.dfw.state.or.us/fish/OSCRP/CRM/reports/16_reports/2016%20_SAFE%20_Annual.pdf.

 

 

 

Selective Chinook Salmon Sport Fisheries in Puget Sound With notes on variants for Coho salmon and Steelhead.

Introduction

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) imposed complex challenges to the management of the sport fishery for Chinook salmon in Puget Sound, Washington State. In order to protect limited stocks of “native or wild” Chinook (i.e., those that are not from hatchery origin and naturally spawn in streams), total closures to sport fishing were strongly considered.

Wild and “hatchery” Chinook (i.e., those that are reared in a hatchery) co-mingle in the same Puget Sound habitat. The hatchery fish are often sufficiently abundant in many areas to allow some level of sport fishing. Total closure of the sport fishery for all Chinook was therefore a major issue for sport fishermen because of the high economic value of the sport, the potential overabundance of adult hatchery fish, and the sport of catching this prized species.

To differentiate hatchery from wild salmon, the adipose fin is removed from hatchery-reared smolts before release. Thus, when an angler brings a Chinook to shore or a boat, the angler can visually determine if it is from hatchery origin, based on the absence of this fin. This allows a mark-selective fishery targeting hatchery fish.

Mark-selective Chinook salmon fisheries are sometimes further constrained by “encounter” quotas. In Puget Sound, quotas for angler “encounters” (a combination of legal-size Chinook, wild Chinook, sublegal hatchery fish, and sublegal wild fish) are established annually for 9 specific marine management areas. For selective river fisheries in the Puget Sound area, the encounter approach is not used.

Current management using quotas on catch and encounters allows sport fisheries on hatchery Chinook salmon. Co-managers Washington Department of Fisheries (WDFW) and Native American Tribes use three major methods to manage the Chinook sport fisheries in Puget Sound:

  1. review of angler punch card data,
  2. creel census surveys supplemented with test boat fishing and aerial surveys, and
  3. quotas on encounters in areas of Puget Sound where sublegal and legal sized Chinook salmon co-mingle.

Punch Cards

In addition to a fishing license, anglers fishing for salmon (all species) and certain other species (e.g., steelhead and halibut) must also purchase a punch card. When one of these species is caught and kept, the angler records the date, location, species, and other information on the card. The punch card must be returned to the WDFW at the end of the recording season. If the cards are not returned, there is a penalty charge made on the next license purchased. The card is used to determine annual harvest and historical trends for the various management areas.

Creel Census

To supplement the punch card information, additional “real time” data are monitored through angler “creel” surveys at various sites. These face-to-face surveys collect information on species caught and kept, number of fish released (including any wild salmon, sublegal fish, others species), hours and management area fished.

Encounters

Recording encounters involves the reporting during creel surveys of all Chinook kept and released, including whether fish caught were legal-sized and adipose clipped, legal-adipose intact, sublegal-adipose clipped, or sublegal-adipose intact. Information collected during the creel surveys also records Chinook retained and an estimate from the angler of those that have been hooked and released (legal, sublegal, or native). This information is supplemented by test boat fishing and aerial surveys.

During the pre-season, each of the 9 management areas in Puget Sound is assigned specific seasonal encounter quota numbers. If any of the quotas are reached in an area, that area is closed to further fishing for Chinook.

Discussion

Mark-selective sport fisheries on hatchery salmon in the Puget Sound have been allowed through the use of quotas on angler catch and encounters for specific management areas. The quotas are determined during the pre-season by the fisheries co-managers WDFW and the Tribes. Quotas are derived from a model that includes historical punch card data, spawning surveys from earlier years, and other population and catch data.

The sport fishery for Chinook has severely declined in recent decades. There is a wide array of potential reasons for this decline. These include massive increases in predators (e.g., seals and sea lions), ocean conditions, loss of freshwater habitat, and others. In past decades, fishing for Chinook salmon was open the entire year, with much higher daily limits (up to 3 fish). The fishery has been severely reduced to only a few weeks in summer and limited months in the winter, often with only a 1 fish daily limit. The addition of the encounters approach in recent years has also contributed to large crowds that are condensed into the shortened periods. This, for some, has catching a prized Chinook salmon a lot less enjoyable.

In general, the encounters approach has been useful for allowing Chinook salmon sport fishing to continue on a limited basis while maintaining protections for wild Chinook. There are some drawbacks, however. For example, if the pre-season estimate of Chinook abundance for a particular management area is underestimated, the encounters quota may be reached early and the season closed, even though there may be substantially high survival rates that might have allowed a higher quota value.

Coho salmon and steelhead are also adipose clipped at the hatchery. This allows selective sport fisheries for these species to continue as well, while allowing release of wild spawning adults. However, the encounters methodology is not currently used for these species (capture of sublegal fish is low). In areas where adult Coho populations are low, a selective fishery may occur, in which only hatchery fish are allowed to be retained. However, in areas where populations of “native” Coho are abundant, both wild and hatchery Coho may be kept.

In general, nearly all steelhead management areas in Washington require release of native steelhead, which, in most cases, have a high survival rate when released.

In sum, these mark-selective sport fisheries in Puget Sound allow sport fisheries that otherwise might be banned altogether. Harvest of hatchery fish may also help reduce competition with wild fish for spawning habitat and food resources.

 

No Funding Help for Central Valley Salmon Hatcheries: Sacramento Valley Salmon Recovery Program and Proposition 3 Strike Out

California’s salmon hatchery programs badly need major projects and upgrades.  The future of wild and hatchery salmon runs, as well as commercial and sport fisheries in California, depends on these programs.  However, hatchery programs are operated and funded under antiquated water project mitigation programs that lack a progressive approach (and funding) for hatcheries in salmon ecosystems in California.  And neither the Sacramento Valley Salmon Recovery Program (SVSRP) nor Proposition 3 includes investments in hatcheries.

California Salmon Hatcheries:

  • Iron Gate Hatchery: Coho, Fall Chinook and Steelhead (Klamath River)
  • Trinity River Hatchery: Coho, Fall Chinook, Spring Chinook and Steelhead (Trinity River)
  • Nimbus Hatchery: Fall Chinook and Steelhead (American River)
  • Mokelumne Hatchery: Fall Chinook and Steelhead (Mokelumne River)
  • Merced Hatchery: Fall Chinook (Merced River)
  • Feather River Hatchery: Fall Chinook, Spring Chinook and Steelhead (Feather River)
  • Coleman National Fish Hatchery: Fall Chinook, Late-fall Chinook and Steelhead (Battle Creek)
  • Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery: Winter Chinook (Sacramento River)

The California Hatchery Review Project and Hatchery Science Review Group (HSRG)1 identified major problems/issues, goals, and expectations related to California salmon hatcheries:

  • Serious loss and degradation of habitat limits natural production of salmon and steelhead in California.
  • Hatchery program goals have been consistently expressed in terms of juvenile production rather than adult production.
  • Program purposes have not been clearly defined.
  • Hatchery monitoring and evaluation programs and Hatchery Coordination Teams are needed.
  • Program size has been set independent of any consideration of potential impacts of hatchery fish on affected natural populations.
  • Off-site releases promote unacceptable levels of straying among populations.
  • Marking/tagging programs are needed for real-time identification of all hatchery-origin Chinook salmon returning to hatchery facilities.
  • Standards for fish culture, fish health management and associated reporting are inadequate and need to be improved.
  • Populations and population boundaries have not been established for non-listed species and are needed for effective development of integrated hatchery programs.
  • Harvest management of Sacramento River Fall Chinook should account for the productivity of naturally-spawning adults.

Program goals:

  • Improving the efficiency of hatchery operations
  • Reducing the impact of hatcheries on natural populations
  • Supporting commercial, tribal, and recreational fisheries

Expectations from hatchery programs:

  • Reduction in the domestication of hatchery fish
  • Reduction in the negative impacts of hatchery fish on natural spawning populations
  • Improved prospects for the long-term successful coexistence of hatchery and natural fish

NMFS’s Salmon Recovery Plan, in addition to supporting the recommendations of the HSRG, also promotes the following action:  “Develop and implement an ecosystem based management approach that integrates harvest, hatchery, habitat, and water management, in consideration of ocean conditions and climate change (Lindley et al. 2009).”

Because scientific studies have shown that hatcheries reduce the long-term fitness and survival of salmon species, and California’s listed salmon and steelhead cannot be sustained without hatcheries, it is imperative that hatchery programs be upgraded to safeguard the future of salmon in California.  One way to accomplish this goal and the others described above is to adopt the goals and objectives of a Conservation Hatchery Strategy.

First, there needs to be a shift away from hatcheries as mitigation for long-ago-built dams and water diversions, and a shift toward hatcheries contributing directly to salmon recovery and conservation.  Dumping tens of million salmon and steelhead hatchery smolts at the eight hatcheries or trucking some to the Bay may sustain a minimal coastal fishery, but it will not bring recovery or delisting of endangered populations.  Conservation hatcheries are a necessary tool for salmon recovery.

The eight hatchery programs need funding to convert them to conservation hatcheries.  That funding could come from the SVSRP and resource agency programs, and future ballot initiatives, as well as mitigation programs.  At a minimum, the SVSRP should be integrated into an ecosystem-based management approach that includes conservation hatcheries.

Coho Salmon Fishery Options in California

The two sub-adult hatchery coho pictured above were recently caught in Puget Sound near Seattle, in a mark-selective fishery (note adipose fins missing on all hatchery coho as in California) where all wild fish (intact adipose fin) must be released. This Washington state sport fishery is hugely popular.1 These hatchery fish reside in the Puget Sound year-round, unlike their wild counterparts.

Coho are native to the California coast and are listed under the state and federal endangered species acts, as they are in Oregon and Washington states. Coastal coho are supplemented by four hatcheries in California. No coho may be kept in California fisheries. Coho were once planted in California reservoirs and supported popular fisheries.

Coho recovery efforts over the past several decades have had mixed results. Information on coho in California can be found at: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Fishes/Coho-Salmon . The goal of the 2004 Coho Recovery Strategy to allow fishing has not been met:

Recovery Strategy GOAL VI: Reach and maintain coho salmon population levels to allow for the resumption of Tribal, recreational, and commercial fisheries for coho salmon in California.

So why not establish mark-selective fisheries for coho in coastal bays in California (e.g., Monterey, San Francisco, Tomales, and Humboldt bays)? The same issues and conflicts in California occur in the Puget Sound fishery. Why not help the underfunded California Coho Recovery Program with revenue generated from such a hatchery coho fishery?

For more information on coho recovery, see: http://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/.

Hatchery Salmon Are Trained to Be Dysfunctional

Research has often shown that hatchery salmon perform less well than their wild counterparts.  The reason for this has often been attributed to genetic factors such as parent selection or to the lack of opportunity for Mother Nature to cull misfits.

Recent research indicates that poor performance of hatchery fish may stem more from the their environmental experiences than from their genetics.  Some older theories that suggested that hatchery fish were just raised dumb now have gained a new following.  New research from Canada suggests that atypical food and feeding combined with overcrowding in hatcheries weakens inherent genetic abilities to cope with the natural environment.

In California’s Central Valley, we have added the burden of releasing hatchery smolts late in the natural emigration season outside of peak flow periods, into warmer waters that are full of other fish that want to eat them.  When the salmon from the hatcheries get hungry,  there is no flood of fresh food pellets.  Their new environment results in starvation, thermal stress, and much higher vulnerability to predation.  Still, hatchery fish make up 70-90% of California’s salmon runs, because Valley habitats no longer support historic levels of wild salmon production.

In recent posts, I have advocated raising hatchery fry in Valley floodplain habitats.  UC Davis studies have shown high rates of growth of hatchery fry raised in flooded rice fields during the winter.  New planning efforts call for more flooded Valley habitats, including rice fields, but these efforts focus primarily on wild juvenile salmon.  There has been no testing to date of the performance of hatchery fry that rear under controlled floodplain conditions.  In light of the recent Canadian research, the ability of floodplain-reared hatchery fish to survive, and the degree to which they stray, warrant evaluation.