Comments on CRITFC proposal for a Collaborative Center for Applied Fish Science

To: Council Members

From: Nancy Huntly, ISRP Review Subcommittee Chair

The Council asked the ISRP to comment on the need for and purpose of a facility to house a collaborative research and education program in applied fish science. This proposal is to fund construction of the facility as well as some personnel, program, and training activities. Separate proposal submissions are planned for additional program elements.

The idea of building a joint facility that combines tribal and university expertise and that includes research, technical operations, and training opportunities is a good one. We strongly support the educational and research values of such a center, which, with appropriate operational structure and staff, could provide innovative and scientifically sound information to many aspects of regional fish programs. This basic idea has strong scientific merit. That said, a number of more specific organizational and scientific aspects of the proposal seem overly narrow and are perhaps likely to limit the innovative, scientific, and educational benefits that could otherwise ensue to CRITFC and to the Fish and Wildlife Program.

Under this proposal, the involved tribes, though benefiting in the short run from the resources already in place at Hagerman, could over the long run lose the opportunity to realize the full benefits of a collaborative and focused research/education facility. This is because the Center's proposed organization would result in collaborations among a restricted group of researchers, educators, and scientific advisors. The Center would receive scientific advice and input from a Science Advisory Group that consists of representatives of only the University of Idaho, the four treaty tribes, and four unspecified fisheries managers. Such a small and geographically narrow group could not provide the best aspects of a scientific advisory group, which is to provide strong and independent advice and ideas.

An alternative to building the proposed Fisheries Science Center at Hagerman might be to create a separate tribal facility with more open opportunity to involve researchers, educators, and technicians from many private organizations, tribes, agencies, and universities. Since many groups are likely to be interested in participating in this interesting and important endeavor, CRITFC could bring together truly innovative groups and stimulate novel approaches. A more open administrative structure and more independent advisory structure would be compatible with the innovative and flexible approaches to fish programs that are needed in the Columbia River Basin. The location of a facility at Hagerman would suggest that aquaculture would be the central emphasis of the center, whereas much current and future emphasis in fisheries science seems to emphasize ecological restoration and a broader view of fishes and their ecosystems.

The proposal successfully establishes the need for a tribal research and education facility and program that focuses on development of innovative and scientifically sound approaches to fish recovery and fishery mitigation. The argument that additional genetics facilities are needed is less compelling. The majority (60%) of the listed backlog of samples is from a single project (Lostine Captive Broodstock). The structure and longevity of this project seem key to establishing the need for a dedicated genetics facility. This need has not yet been apparent in reviews of the various Fish and Wildlife Program projects. Further, the argument that a single contractor will provide consistency is not convincing. The cost of duplicate runs of subsets of samples to ensure comparability of results from two (or more) labs is trivial in a program of this size. Benefits could accrue to the program from relationships with a variety of contractors. The cost advantage of sample processing might be in favor of either a single facility that achieves economies of scale or multiple contractors whose competition leads to less expensive procedures. No clear evidence is presented that the single contractor is needed to improve operations or data quality. To the contrary, if the single contractor approach results in sole-sourcing a large genetics program, it may inhibit opportunities for the exchange of knowledge and adoption of new techniques and perspectives. If sample backlog proves to be a significant problem for the fish recovery programs, perhaps that need could be addressed in a separate proposal, since processing genetic samples is a far more narrow and technical task than those suggested for the research and educational charges of a Center for Applied Fisheries Science.

Although expanded educational programs, including ones with research and technical training components, are a good idea and appear to be needed, the education program is not well explained in the proposal. An active professional facility can offer effective technical training, but breadth of training also is a clear need in applied fisheries science and does not seem to be well met in the proposed program. Training within a single facility might meet many technical training needs, but is unlikely to provide students with breadth of background and the diversity of approaches and perspectives that leads to novel approaches and new understandings. Further, the proposed cost per student is very high (more than $38k/student/year), a cost that approximates the starting salary of a scientist at many universities in the region. It appears that much of the cost is administrative, since the proposal lists only $20k/student/yr as direct student support. Neither the high administrative assessment nor the student cost is warranted without a more detailed explanation and justification of the education/training program.

In addition, more information is needed about other existing fisheries educational opportunities for tribal members throughout the basin. For example, broad fisheries education in aquatic science, genetics, and ecology is available at many regional universities. Further, the proposal should clarify what level of education is desired. The proposal lists high school, technical, undergraduate and graduate programs, but does not make clear which are intended to be included or how. The proponents might consider a variety of options that integrate training and education beyond the walls of a single Center or other institution and seek collaborators that could offer more diverse opportunities. For instance, a rotating internship program could give students the opportunity to train in a variety of fisheries labs and institutions and, by agreement of sponsoring institutions, could result in a specialized degree at the associate, undergraduate, or graduate level. Such a program could meet the needs of many students bringing diverse approaches to fishery restoration and management.

The proposal includes a section on population management plans, which appear to be planned as a major research initiative of the Center. The plans are separate from the request for funds for Center construction and initial operation. There are significant scientific concerns about this activity, which appears to focus on methods of supplementation to the exclusion of any other potential remediation measures.

Current scientific information is not very supportive of supplementation as a sole mechanism for meeting recovery goals. Further, supplementation may very well prove to be incompatible with the current conservation focus of much of the Fish and Wildlife Program. Research on supplementation and conservation is producing new information for remediation and recovery. The supplementation focus of this proposal is too restrictive to contribute innovative approaches to recovering sustainable populations of native fish. It is likely that ideas about acceptable hatchery genetic management practices will be in flux for many years, as conservation genetics advances beyond its currently very limited database.

The genetic management activities and the genetic monitoring data that are now being collected should contribute to a much more potent future understanding of the genetics of wild and managed populations. There is no doubt that ideas of best genetic management, best hatchery practice, and best strategies for conservation and recovery will change dramatically over the coming decades. To be effective, approaches to this important, complicated, and scientifically dynamic set of problems need to be much more open to new problem definitions, new research questions, and independent scientific advice.

In summary, the basic idea of a collaborative Center focused on applied fish science is sound, as is the intent to integrate research and educational opportunities. However, it is risky for BPA to fund a project (or a linked series of projects) that would concentrate research and technical work to the degree suggested in this proposal. The proposed Center seemingly would lock most of CRITFC's genetic work, and potentially most of the attention of the four treaty tribes on important issues of fish recovery, into a single facility. This facility would associate with a single state university for direction and advice. The main advantage to the proposed alliance would seem to be the existence of the Hagerman facility. However, there are also significant costs to the alliance as currently written. The proposed operating plan and administrative structure seem to be too narrow to meet the Center's ambitious goals. The magnitude of the economic, natural resource, and cultural issues make this far from an ordinary research alliance.

We suggest that CRITFC develop further the concept of a focused research and education Center and that they consider submitting a revised proposal expanding on their vision for a separate tribal facility that could become a Center for development of innovative research, training, and educational programs. The need for such a Center is established; however, the currently proposed location and administrative design are too limited to support the envisioned purpose and role of the Center.