SPOKANE (AP) -- Columbia River system salmon and steelhead hatcheries are coming under increasing scrutiny as biologists study the extent to which hatchery-bred fish dilute the genetics of wild fish.
In the next three years, some hatcheries may close and others may see their missions shifted from mass production to preservation of wild runs. And federally funded hatcheries will soon operate under new rules intended to protect native fish.
Stephen Smith, regional hatcheries chief for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said he doubts any Northwest salmon are genetically pure after decades of hatchery influence.
But even those salmon runs that suffered the most genetic ''pollution'' can be turned around if hatchery practices are reformed, Smith said.
''If you stop the pollution, just like in a stream, it will eventually clean up,'' he said.
Many biologists blame past hatchery practices that emphasized production of large numbers of fish for helping bring on the current decline in salmon and steelhead populations.
Eggs from one river were routinely shipped to spawn fish for another, with no regard for the local adaptations the fish had evolved for dealing with the specific demands of their home rivers.
At the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, 10 million to 16 million salmon and steelhead returned each year to spawn in the Columbia system, which includes the Snake River. Today only about 1 million fish return, and monitoring shows about 80 percent are hatchery-bred, rather than the wild fish protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
Smith's agency, which is responsible for salmon recovery, plans to eventually require hatcheries to mark all the salmon they produce so fishermen and researchers can distinguish them from wild fish, Smith said. Fish are marked with tags, by clipping certain fins, and by inserting coded wires into the snout.
Several hatchery studies are under way, including one that is examining how hatchery-bred fish compete with native fish. That study could lead to changes in the timing or location of steelhead releases.
The Northwest Power Planning Council, which oversees fish and wildlife programs to offset the impact of the region's hydroelectric dams, has proposed a first-ever evaluation of all Columbia River hatcheries within three years. The council also has adopted new guidelines to encourage hatcheries to reduce the harm they can cause to native fish.
Council spokesman John Harrison said hatcheries that fail to meet the guidelines will be forced to make changes or lose funding from the Bonneville Power Administration, the Northwest's federal power-marketing agency.
Fisheries officials say Northwest hatcheries likely will never again produce the 200 million young fish they dumped into the Columbia River system in the early 1990s, the peak of artificial fish production. That means fewer opportunities for fishermen, unless wild runs are restored or hatcheries can increase the average life span of the fish they produce.
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