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Salmon recovery relies on support for mass-marking

A wild fish, below, has an intact adipose fin;
the adipose fin has been removed from a marked fish, above.

Since the 1970s, federal agencies have worked closely with states and treaty tribes in the Pacific Northwest to reverse the decline of native salmon populations. As partners in this effort, they have restructured fisheries, updated hatchery practices, and allocated funding to restore wild, naturally spawning stocks listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

However, federal support for the basic work of mass-marking hatchery fish appears to be uncertain in fiscal year 2014. Under current proposals, Washington state could lose millions of dollars in federal funding for this essential tool in the ongoing effort to recover wild, naturally spawning salmon populations.

Mass-marking salmon in Washington state

The state of Washington has the largest system of salmon hatcheries in the world, raising more than 200 million juvenile fish at 128 state, federal, and tribal facilities each year. These hatcheries produce the majority of all salmon caught in Washington waters, contributing to the statewide economy. According to one economic analysis, the 83 stateoperated hatcheries, alone, generate nearly $70 million in personal income from fishing each year.

Mass-marking has played a vital role in salmon management since the mid-1990s, when concerns about the decline of wild salmon populations became increasingly acute. In response, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) launched a pioneering effort to visibly mark hatchery-raised salmon so they can be readily distinguished from wild fish in Northwest waters.

Today, virtually all coho and Chinook salmon produced in Washington hatcheries including those raised in federal and tribal facilities are mass-marked by clipping the small adipose fin near their tail. This strategy has revolutionized salmon management and provided an indispensable tool in the broad-based effort to recover wild salmon stocks throughout the region.

Sustainable fisheries

Prior to mass-marking, restrictions imposed by new ESA listings threatened to close or greatly curtail historic salmon fisheries throughout the region. In addition to the recreational and cultural values involved, the potential loss of fishing opportunities presented a severe economic threat to fishing families and entire communities, especially in rural areas of the Northwest.

Once mass-marking was established, fishery managers were able to mitigate that situation by creating a growing number of "mark-selective fisheries," which require fishers to release any unmarked presumably wild salmon or steelhead they encounter. These rules protect wild salmon, while permitting fishers to retain hatchery fish produced for harvest.

WDFW employs mark-selective rules in recreational fisheries throughout the state, and is expanding their application in commercial fisheries on the Columbia River under a broad-based reform measure jointly approved by Oregon early this year. The impacts of these fisheries are closely monitored and subject to strict federal limits.

Recovery regions for salmon and steelhead
populations listed under the ESA

Wild salmon recovery

Equally important is the contribution massmarking has made to the state's ongoing salmon recovery effort. Several key recovery objectives depend on the ability of fish managers, scientists and technicians to identify hatchery fish on sight:

  • Population assessments: Accurate assessment of the number of wild vs. hatchery fish is essential in efforts to recover wild salmon populations. In recent years, fishery managers discovered that they had long overestimated the number of wild salmon returning to Washington's rivers and streams before massmarking was in effect.
  • Broodstock management: NOAA-Fisheries requires that all state and tribal hatcheries include a minimum number of wild fish in their fish-production programs, as specified in Hatchery and Genetic Management Plans for each facility. Mass-marking helps hatchery workers meet those goals by making hatchery fish readily identifiable.
  • Limiting strays: Salmon recovery plans in most watersheds establish objectives for limiting the number of hatchery fish that stray into areas used by wild salmon to spawn. Visual identification makes it possible for salmon managers to determine the number of hatchery fish on the spawning grounds and take corrective action.

All of these recovery strategies were included in recommendations by the independent Hatchery Scientific Review Group, appointed by Congress in 2000 to assess the practices of salmon hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest. Today, they also figure prominently in federal recovery plans in effect throughout the state.

Federal support for mass-marking

Fund sources for mass-marking
  • State - $2,000,000
  • Federal - $2,185,552
  • Local - $641,800
    (Tacoma Power, PacifiCorp)
  • Total - $4,827,352

Since 2003, every federal appropriation bill including those currently proposed in the U.S. House and Senate has included a provision requiring mass-marking at all federally owned or financed salmon hatcheries. Over the past decade, all 17 federally funded hatcheries on the Columbia River have met this mandate.

As partners in the salmon-recovery effort, NOAAFisheries and other federal agencies have also helped Northwest states and tribes meet the cost of massmarking fish, which is significant. In 2012, WDFW spent $4.3 million to mark 90 million juvenile Chinook and coho salmon. That represents approximately 12 percent of the Department's total budget for hatchery production that year.

Now it appears that some key sources of federal support are at risk:

  • Mitchell Act: Since 1946, WDFW has received approximately $4.5 million per year to support the operation and maintenance of state hatcheries in the lower Columbia River under the Mitchell Act. This funding was designated by Congress to compensate Washington and other Northwest states for losses in fish production resulting from the construction of hydroelectric dams. Since 2010, WDFW has also received $1.6 million per year to support hatchery reforms and mark all salmon produced in accordance with the ESA. Sequestration and proposed federal budget reductions now threaten to eliminate this funding, reducing WDFW's ability to produce fish and undermining the purpose of the Act.
  • Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund: Since 2006, WDFW has received $4 million to $6 million each year from the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund (PCSRF), including $480,810 to help meet the cost of marking tribal salmon in Puget Sound. NOAA Fisheries, in a letter sent in June, indicated that mass-marking may no longer qualify for this funding. Under a Washington court decision, WDFW must bear the cost of marking those fish if no other source of funding is available.

Other traditional federal funding sources have also indicated they may reduce their support for related fish-management activities, ranging from coded-wire tagging to genetic stock testing. These potential cutbacks currently being considered with regard to funding provided by the Pacific Salmon Treaty, the Dingell-Johnson Act and the Bonneville Power Administration would further complicate WDFW's ability to respond to the loss of federal funds for mass-marking.

WDFW does not have nor is it likely to receive state funding to meet these costs, raising questions about the future of mass-marking, selective fisheries and salmon recovery in Washington state and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Raising and releasing hatchery salmon without marking them is not an option. Not only would that undermine efforts to make hatchery fish identifiable, it would also be a violation of state and federal law.

For WDFW, the only option would be to reduce hatchery production at state facilities that rely on those funds. Under the current scenario, state hatcheries receiving Mitchell Act funds would be required to reduce production by up to 50 percent.

The loss of the PCSRF funding would reduce production by 34 percent. Additional reductions would likely be required if other sources of funding for mass-marking are curtailed, striking a major blow to fisheries and local economies.

In recent years, mass-marking has become an integral part of state, federal, and tribal hatchery operations throughout the Pacific Northwest. This initiative has led to the creation of new, sustainable salmon fisheries and provided an invaluable tool in the broad-based effort to recover wild salmon populations. Continued federal support is needed for that effort to move forward.

A WDFW fish biologist sorts marked and unmarked salmon.