In the Columbia basin where dams have blocked almost half of the historic habitat, and continue to hinder the recovery of ESA listed salmon and steelhead, they get the majority of the attention from the conservation community. The focus on dams and their impact is understandable but an equally important step towards wild recover y in the basin is reforming the more than 150 hatchery programs currently operating in the Columbia. Hatchery fish now outnumber wild 10 to 1 in the Columbia River imposing significant ecological and genetic impacts on wild populations.
Fortunately, a large body of research has come out of the Columbia demonstrating the degree to which hatcheries depress the productivity of wild populations forcing managers to address hatcheries and their attendant impacts in a comprehensive fashion. While there is still significant work to be done, a number of key measures have been implemented or proposed. On the Deschutes River where stray hatchery fish had for years been limiting the reproductive success of wild stocks, agencies and environmental groups collaborated to fund and operate weirs on several key tributaries which allow marked hatchery fish to be removed from the spawning population.
Seeking to implement more widespread hatchery reform, in the fall of 2010 the federal government issued a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for changes in the operations at many of the hatcheries within the Columbia. Among the key provisions in the DEIS were measures to reduce spawning between hatchery and wild fish by constructing weirs on key spawning tributaries through the Columbia and Snake, discontinuing outplanting in many areas, implementing more stringent standards for the percentage hatchery contribution to spawning populations origin and in cases where hatcheries fail to meet these goals, reducing plants or discontinuing programs altogether. While hatchery reform is far from complete in the Columbia, the ball is finally rolling and the next few years will be critical in turning the tide on hatcheries in the Columbia.