A panel of scientists has recommended major changes in the way salmon hatcheries are run in California.
The comprehensive review released Tuesday was ordered by Congress, and comes three years after another group of experts identified an overreliance on hatchery salmon as a key factor in the 2008 collapse of salmon returns to the Sacramento River.
Among the general findings, the panel found that there are no uniform standards to make sure hatcheries use the most up-to-date scientific practices. It also suggests measuring the success of hatcheries on how many adults return, rather than how many young fish are released, and minimizing the harm hatchery fish cause wild fish.
In 2009, a NOAA Fisheries Service report warned there is little federal fisheries managers can do directly to prevent the boom and bust cycle of salmon returns from repeating, given the lack of genetic diversity brought about by as many as 90 percent of the young fish each year coming from hatcheries, and the increasing frequency of swings in ocean conditions.
The California Department of Fish and Game will put together a team this fall to look at implementing the recommendations, as budgetary constraints allow, said Kevin Shaffer, program manager for anadromous fisheries for the agency.
"We have to change things," to improve salmon returns, Shaffer said. "I know there is some fear," among various groups, but the department is committed to maintaining fishing harvests as well as restoring endangered salmon runs.
Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents California commercial salmon fishermen, welcomed the report.
"It's always good to have the best available science at hand, so that we can do the best available management," he said.
The review looked at eight hatcheries — six state and two federal — took two years and cost $2 million. It follows similar reviews for hatcheries in Washington state's Puget Sound, and the Columbia Basin in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, and makes similar recommendations.
The review noted that scientific research has long shown that fish raised in hatcheries are not as successful in the wild as fish that spawn naturally in rivers and can harm wild fish ecologically and genetically.
To overcome some of these problems, the report recommends relying more on wild fish for brood stock, taking greater care to maintain genetic diversity when fertilizing eggs, and releasing young fish close to the hatchery, rather than trucking them for miles before releasing them, to prevent straying.
It also recommended taking greater care to manage ocean and river harvests so that enough wild fish survive to spawn.
Bob Clarke, fisheries operations supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said many of the recommendations, such as specific ways of handling fish to protect genetic diversity, could be implemented under current budgets. Some, such as reconsidering harvest levels in the ocean and rivers, would be more difficult and take broader policy changes.