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Carmen Macdonald

A passion for fishing and hunting grew into a career that's included Alaskan guide, media sales, writer and the politics of outdoor recreation. My company, Vaunt Marketing, represents industry-leading brands in the US and Canadian markets.

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December 31, 2012

Anti-Hatchery or Anti-Angler?

by Carmen Macdonald

I've always been a pretty good reader. I consider my reading comprehension to be pretty solid. As I read over the history of our greater Columbia basin salmon and steelhead runs, the story laid out is pretty straightforward.

Euro-man came to region. Euro-man harvested the hell out of trees and salmon. Euro-man needed food and electricity also, so Euro-man placed over 200 dams within the basin. At the time, Euro-man understood that the dams, agriculture and growth would eliminate much of the productivity of the region's salmon, but that was cool because cheap power, irrigation, flood control and harvest of other natural resources would make the region actually livable. To replace the natural productivity of salmon that would be destroyed, man would construct hatcheries.

I clearly understand that there are some dramatic examples of over-harvest, a couple world wars and several injustices to fish alongside this concise history, but still, that's the snapshot.

Yet in the modern day, history is morphing. It's being rewritten. On the pages of Ifish, the declarations are specific. It wasn't the fact that we dammed the rivers, cut off access to a massive percentage of the spawning habitat, radically altered the temperature and flow regimes of the rivers and diked, rip rapped and built in the flood plains that created today's salmon situation. Nope, quite clearly it is proclaimed that it was the addition of hatchery fish that caused the decline of our great fish.

Ifish is one thing, the law protects freedom of religion and the religion of wild fish is no different I suppose. But where this revisionist history is much more troubling is in the courtroom. The Native Fish Society, as well as the McKenzie Flyfishers have either launched lawsuits or filed notice of intent to sue the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife over hatchery fish. Their beef? That hatchery fish are impeding the recovery of wild fish.

They cite studies authored by Katryn Kostow and many others that show suppression to productivity based on the mixed spawning of hatchery and wild fish. In two such studies, one on the Clackamas and one on the Siletz, Kostow outlines "estimated carrying capacities" of wild fish in these rivers with the removal of hatchery fish. In these instances, the hatchery fish in question were removed, and now 15 or so years later, the wild fish have failed to respond. In each case, the reality of the wild population proves to be about half of Kostow's estimates.

Looking at this graph of Siletz, what has been gained? I see a run that's the same as it was in the 1970's that's gone through a severe El Nino and bounced back to what it was. I also see a successful fishery that is now gone.

Unfortunately, reality doesn't seem to trump a good theory and these studies are regularly utilized as the basis for continued removal of hatchery fish throughout the region.

Political science was a passion of mine at Oregon State University. The key point of learning over four years in the subject was that you can understand any political move by understanding "who benefits." Because the political work of these groups include fish, I might also add, "what benefits" because surely the fish ought to be on the receiving end of some good stuff if we're going to court.

You can probably guess at this point that I believe these lawsuits are frivolous at best and extremely destructive at worst. Here's why.

In the late 1800's there was a collapse of Columbia River fish runs based on massive over-harvest. This time period is often documented in the literature. What is less documented is that the habitat, being intact, was flexible to the injustice and delivered two more harvest booms. This fact is important because the first hatcheries went in during the very late 1800's and more were added throughout the next 40 years, the period leading to the wartime harvest of 1941.

It's too tough to post screen shots of the whole document, but here's a key excerpt.

By 1941, the dam building era was well underway, but it would not come to an end for 30 more years. Over a period of nearly 50 years, the Columbia Basin would be transformed from a salmonid ecotopia, to a modern industrial environment.

Harvest graphs from the period clearly outline the ramifications of dam building as harvest plummeted. It's important to note here, that the dramatic decline in harvest rates would have been even worse if it were not for hatchery production. Clearly, we cut off the productivity of the wild populations.

As we built dams throughout the region, we destroyed not only the elasticity of the populations to support high harvest rates, but the ability of the populations to sustain themselves at all.

At the time, power, flood control, irrigation…they all made sense. I'd take a guess that put to a popular vote today, these projects still would, and do, command the approval of residents, by a landslide. The collective "we" made choices, conscious decisions, over these decades. Portland wanted water…the Bull Run complex was built and the watershed dammed. The Willamette and its tributaries were summarily dammed, most without fish passage. The Columbia and it's tributaries…all the same.

Power, flood control, irrigation and logging made this region livable.

Dams are a big deal. When someone wants to build one there are hoops, more hoops and then probably legal action to contend with prior to construction. Within these processes, "mitigation" for known destruction included the production of hatchery fish. There was clarity. When you cut off more than 10,000 miles of spawning habitat completely and change the temperatures and flows of the rivers that remain, you end up with remnant runs of wild fish in the small niches of habitat that persist.

Meanwhile, we zoned most of the remaining land for forestry, farming, industrial, residential and more. In smaller chunks the habitat was changed, altered… converted. Of course there were not environmental impact statements when, by little bits and pieces, flood plains were plowed under and planted, a parking lot was paved and hillsides logged. Many thousands of small injustices to the fish, none remarkable on their own, but in combination massive, removed the refuges and added to sediment and pollution loads.

Wild fish are incredibly adept at filling suitable habitat. That is exactly what they do today, and exist in numbers commensurate with the habitat that is left.

So who benefits by the revisionist history?

1. The preservation groups. A political entity is only as good as its latest campaign. Hatchery fish as the cause for the decline of wild fish is easy, actionable and sellable to membership.

2. Dam operators. In development of the watersheds and destruction of the habitat, funding for hatchery fish are the ongoing responsibility of power and utility companies. Get rid of the hatchery fish and these entities run the river and alleviate themselves of ongoing costs and grow profits. Even the City of Portland who pays for hatchery fish on the Sandy because the Bull Run complex has no fish passage sent in their letter stating "…the City believes that the current hatchery programs for spring Chinook are having a significant impact on the integrity of the natural origin fish." It's perfect logic. You have a mitigation responsibility with costs tied to hatchery fish. Instead of balking at costs, just get on the anti-hatchery bandwagon.

3. People who are anti-angler. In conversation with anglers who are fish preservationists, there is a common trend. Deep down, they loathe other anglers. Oftentimes it's due to differences in fishing techniques. Sometimes they just can't stand a crowd. But it seems that their goals of eliminating hatchery fish are really based upon eliminate the hatchery fish angler…and have the water to themselves.

Who loses?

1. Anglers. Fishermen have always been the push over in the middle of this debate. For the most part, we're realists. We're thankful the region was developed to advance our quality of life. We also like our fish. But with each hatchery cut, we lose opportunity, directly losing fish. Those with solid experience and history here have witnessed fisheries become shadows of their former selves, with no tangible response from wild populations. Promises have been broken by the hundreds.

If you started steelhead fishing after 1992, I can't say that you've ever seen a really good steelhead fishery.

2. Communities. Hatchery fish create arteries through which dollars flow from urban to rural areas. With each program cut, the dollars stop flowing. The little tackle shop disappears, the burger joint goes away and the town constricts.

3. The fish. In the modern world, if resources cannot rally a mountain of support for their existence, they're eradicated. I love to fish. I'm not necessarily in love with fish. I think they're beautiful, amazing and inspiring creatures, but my connection with them is through a rod and reel, not on an emotional level. We're losing anglers with every fishery reduction. In losing anglers, we're losing the base of support that is truly the only way to ensure the species' ongoing survival.

What makes an actual difference for salmonids?

This whole debate started in the mid-1990's. I remember it clearly. El Nino crippled stocks throughout the region. EVERYBODY wanted answers. At the time, I worked at Frank Amato Publications. Obviously, our office was extremely concerned. Marty Sherman, then editor of FlyFishing magazine, laid out a fantastic argument that fingered hatchery fish as the cause: genetic drift, inferior genetics, feedlot type breeding. This was the case championed by Oregon Trout at the time.

I was 100% on board with Marty and the Oregon Trout mantra.

Even remember arguing with Nick Amato, editor of Salmon Trout Steelheader about it. Nick was incredibly calm. Growing up with Frank Amato as a father delivers an extremely tight relationship to these fish. Nick had the history to understand that runs cycle, based upon ocean conditions.

A flurry of management actions have taken place since the massive El Nino of the mid 1990's. Removal of hatchery fish, downsizing of programs, changes in broodstock. I've paid attention to it all and while all the runs rebounded from the El Nino, only two examples fall outside the curve.

1. Oregon Coastal Coho. In the 1970's and 1980's it was Coho rather than Chinook salmon that commanded participation in ocean fisheries. As a participant who remembers the fisheries, they were amazing, world-class events. Within these monster fisheries, however, wild fish protection was weak. As we harvested masses of hatchery fish, we harvested wild fish right alongside them. Total exploitation rates ranged as high as 90% of the spawning population. It was egregious.

When the El Nino crippled the availability of fish, harvest was dramatically cut back. Maintaining lower exploitation rates of 10- to 15% since, the populations have once again expanded greatly. The anti-hatchery folks will say the expansion is due to the removal of hatchery fish. I urge anyone with a simple understanding of bar graphs to draw their own conclusions from the chart below.

Did we save coho by removing hatchery fish, or simply by not harvesting 80% of the adults every year?

2. Columbia River Spring and Summer Chinook. In the winter of 1996, Mother Nature took control of the Columbia River migration corridor for salmon. Massive flooding overwhelmed the ability of the hydropower system to "control" river flow. Salmon smolts went over spillways and rode massive flows to an ocean that had rebounded from the El Nino. Following that year, federal judge James Redden ordered hydropower operators to meet flow and spill requirements for the benefit of migrating salmon.

The result of changes to the hydropower system was exponential growth in Spring Chinook and Summer Chinook runs. Fisheries that had been closed for 24 years were reopened. Quickly, we've come to take these fisheries for granted. New anglers know nothing different. Know nothing of the history.

On the contrary, we've now approaching twenty years of reductions to hatchery plants or complete elimination of hatchery runs. We have examples of rivers that have not been stocked with hatchery fish for a much longer timeline.

What are the results? From my perspective, the results are pretty obvious.

1. We've eliminated tons of fisheries, the economics that accompany them and the connection between tens of thousands of anglers and the resource.

2. The wild fish populations have persisted as they did in the presence of hatchery fish. They rise and fall bases on outmigration conditions and the fertility of the ocean on a given year. Nothing more, nothing less.

Why are wild fish, steelhead in particular, not responding to the reduction and/or elimination of hatchery fish? Why are results similar to the Columbia not being seen after 15 years?

My answer is cause and effect. Hatchery fish did not cause the decline of wild fish, therefor it seems a little absurd to believe that removing hatchery fish would create a rebound. This is what seriously chaps my hide. As these "suppression" studies roll out, no one is going back to quantify any results, or at least any meaningful results.

On January 27, 2011, Kathryn Kostow of ODFW delivered an update to her Clackamas River study and sent it out directly to wild fish groups. Within it, she cited a wild winter steelhead run numbering 3,100 adults as proof of the expansion of the population since the removal of hatchery summer steelhead. They only problem is, the wild fish numbering 3,100 did not exist. The actual number was 2,100, per PGE's direct fish count of wild fish ascending the dam. The actual run size of 2,100 and the 2010 run size of 2,200 are exactly similar to run sizes that existed when the hatchery summer steelhead were present.

Notice the winter steelhead counts now, versus the 1980's. I challenge anyone to show a difference in the wild population.

And here's what we've given up for an increase of nothing in the wild population. A thriving summer steelhead fishery.

Within Kostow's update, there was this gigantic out clause: "The population appreas to be able to grow again, which should increase the chance for recovery of this ESA-listed species. Two factors, population grow rate and basin carrying capacity, will determine how rapid the population abundance will increase and how big it can become. Recent modeling results (still in progress) suggest that population growth could take as long [as] 5 or 6 generations and will continue to be influenced by external factors that influence smolt-to-adult survival, such as migration survival, ocean productivity cycles, and harvest rates."

In other words, there's a whole bunch of other factors that are much more important to wild fish survival than the presence of hatchery fish and Kostow has inserted her placeholder for the very real probability that no expansion of the wild run takes place.

What's been accomplished on the Clackamas and other rivers has not been an expansion of the wild runs, but destruction of the hatchery run and the promises made to anglers during the era of dam building.

At what point will we go back and test the hypothesis about wild and hatchery fish interactions on actual populations? We now have abundant case studies, yet the preservation groups ask for no validation.

I can only wonder if they're anti-hatchery fish for the sake of the resource or just simply anti-angler, anti-hatchery –fish-angler specifically. Given the lack of measurable success to date associated with the removal of hatchery fish, I can only believe the latter.

Comments (32)

Rush wrote 4 years ago

Well said, well thought out....great questions!!!

Rainmann wrote 4 years ago

Can't argue with facts. Odfw should rethink their thinking on managing its fish. I believe its their goal to keep fish numbers down. If fish numbers were up like could be very easy, the state would not get there federal funding. Its all about money not fish.

Rusty Pipe wrote 4 years ago

Well written!! This piece NEEDS to get out to the masses. Please look into getting this out to other audiences.

NEUTRON wrote 4 years ago

Nice write up. I think one aspect that is sorely overlooked by the powers that be are the economic impacts that hatchery fish can provide.

The Greek wrote 4 years ago

Great read Carmen, thank you.
This artical deserves further circulation.

unclipped chrome wrote 4 years ago

Very good points. I agree 100%.

unclipped chrome wrote 4 years ago

The upper Clackamas River once provided a world class summer steelhead fishery. Now it is a river full of nothing in the summer! As the dam counts have shown ending this program has done nothing to increase the number of wild winter steelhead in the Clackamas River. This summer steelhead fishery was a great fishery that should be restarted. Why keep the summer steelhead fishery discontinued when the program has shown to not harm the wild winter steelhead run. We need more places to fish, not fewer. The upper Clackamas provided a 1st class fishery and it was not combat fishing below a dam. It was summer steelheading at it's finest.

David Johnson wrote 4 years ago

You hit the nail on the head with this one Carmen Thank you so much for putting what I've known and felt for so long.

These are anti-angling groups with an emotional agenda to remove other fishermen.

All the fishermen who are so willing to give up fisheries need to read this.

And you are so right on all the parties who will benefit (power companies, anti's,) and who looses (fish, fishermen, economy)

It's just too bad for most anti's this will go into one ear and out the other.

I hope and wish the ODFW will wake up and smell the coffee.

capttuna wrote 4 years ago

capttuna wrote 4 years ago

You hit the nail on the head and with footnotes - run with it - lets get together and do something about this fraud they've gotten away with for too long!

ThunderToad wrote 4 years ago

Very good article. I was explaining some of these very points with a family member who is new to the game. Higher license fees every year yet opportunity decreases. ODFW should be ashamed at how they snow the people that pay their wages. Please get this article to the masses!

5-Cents wrote 4 years ago

Great read - I accidently came to this article. We need this posted where everyone can see it!

Jennie@ifish wrote 4 years ago

Fishing was a LOT better back in the '50's & '60's whenlots more winter steelhead were planted in metro area and north coastal streams. I have to agree that fresh and saltwater conditions seem to be the biggest influences on returns of wild and hatchery fish. I am all for more hatchery fish!

Carmen Macdonald wrote 4 years ago

I appreciate all the comments, text messages and voicemails I've received. As for getting the word out, Ifish reaches 200,000 unique visitors a month- not sure how to get more eyes on the blogs.
Tougher part is where to go. BPA, PGE, Corps of Engineers, NMFS, Tacoma Power and others cut their deals in the back room.
To effect change with the power brokers, we need the Governor. Governor Kitzhaber was at the helm during the El Nino of the 1990's. He was Oregon Trout's most powerful ally. We need his office to look objectively at what's transpired, make ODFW answer direct questions about results, and decide if Oregon is to be a wild fish museum or a thriving state with a balanced approach to the resource and thriving economics.

Collectively, we need to realize that in too many cases, the work of the HSRG is not being used to save fish, but rather it's being used to save budgets by destroying fisheries.

blackdog wrote 4 years ago

Carmen - great read! Thank you for your efforts in putting this together. Good to see that good old OSU education being put to work!

And while ifish reaches 200,000 'unique' visitors a month, these people are not all that unique. This really needs to get to the Common Joe living in Multnomah County that's going to fall hook, line, and sinker for Kostow's studies and for the various lawsuits popping up. Any chance you can send this to the Oregonian, The Bend Bulletin, and any other significant newspapers around the state (and perhaps Washington as well)?

Bankbound wrote 4 years ago

I would love to see a study on the Molalla.

Clatter wrote 4 years ago

Great write up Carmen! This is something WE ALL can support and NEED to support. Gun Rod and Bow, maybe CCA can give a shout out?

skeetshtr wrote 4 years ago

Well said Carmen, its time to bring back some of our missing fisheries! Thumbs up for more hatchery runs.The natives will or will not recover depending on habitat available, not hatchery fish, and no thanks to some of the native fish elitists. Hurray for a well written piece.Pro hatchery and pro angler all the way!

Wannabe wrote 4 years ago

Awesome....thank you

BoulderDancer wrote 4 years ago

Glad you found the time to put this together. The industry needs your knowledge and insights.

HarpMan wrote 4 years ago

Carmen, Awesome work. In regards to Figure 16 the Siletz summer steelhead graph... Having lived along the river starting in 72 there was a great many coho planted in the Rock Creek Hatchery near Logsden during the 70's that if were added into today's river capacity figures would blow the charts off.... yet the summers came back in very very good numbers...Probably better than any time in recent history. Baffling that Kostow and Buckman never reflect on the fish numbers of from Rock Creek Hatchery to set any Siletz river capacity numbers.

Mike Laverty

As a stakeholder member to Coastal Multi-Species Conservation and management plan it is noted that the Siletz will lose another 30K in hatchery summer steelhead plants. Bringing the total from 80K to 50K. The 30K summer plant are destined for the Nestucca.

AlseaAssassin wrote 4 years ago

Very well written Carmen. It was unfortunate to loose such a great summer steelhead fishery upstream of North Fork dam but the logic(at the time)to remove summer steelhead (and hatchery trout in the upper basin for that matter) to reduce competition made perfect sense.

Now that 3 plus generations have gone by with no appreciable gains in wild winter productivity due to the previous management changes listed below. It may be time to revisit the issue of re-establishing one of the most popular fisheries in the state (at one time more summer steelhead were tagged in the upper Clackamas than the Deschutes).

I encourage you to compare and contrast the wild winter steelhead numbers at Willamette Falls with North Fork numbers. You'll see little to no divergance across the last 20 yeears despite the Willamette being heavily supplimented with hatchery summer steelhead and the Clackamas native fish sanctuary established in 1996. It appears that the numbers of wild winter steelhead returning to both basins is driven by factors outside of the presence of summer steelhead.

I've attached a historical overview of Clackamas River Hatchery Management:

Clackamas River Hatchery Management
Historical Overview

Spring Chinook
Eagle Creek Hatchery discontinued releases in 1985.
Clackamas Hatchery returns started in 1980
Releases from Clackamas above North Fork have been for experimental purposes only
All hatchery fish (except double index) returning from 2003 on are fin clipped.
Discontinued passing marked fish upstream of North Fork in 2000.
Some fish are acclimated at sites downstream of the hatchery prior to release

No hatchery coho (except from wild brood) have been released above North Fork since 1979.
No hatchery releases except from Eagle Creek in lower Clackamas since 1994.
Discontinued passing marked fish upstream of North Fork in 2000.

Winter Steelhead
Almost all hatchery release were made in lower river.
Big Creek stock discontinued 1999
Began Wild broodstock collection at North Fork in 1991.
Clackamas hatchery switched from E C stock to all wild stock in 2002.
Discontinued passing marked fish upstream of North Fork in 1996

Summer Steelhead
First release in 1970 all upstream of North Fork
1987 began making about half of the smolt releases in lower river.
Beginning 1998 all releases made in lower river.
Beginning 1999 no summer steelhead allowed to pass North Fork.

Discontinued releases of hatchery rainbow in running waters in 1997
Brook trout no longer released in lakes with outlet.
Cutthroat mostly Willamette basin fish from Long Tom hatchery some Westslope cuts from Chelan hatchery in Hideaway Lake

CoastySmokey wrote 4 years ago

To Harpman:
In your role as a stake holder on the multi species conservation plan can you help make sure the group gets to see this side of the equation as well. I worry about the direction of that effort as evidenced by some of the pre-work material that was distributed.

Carmen, well done and thanks for your work on this. It captures what alot of us believe but can't quite articulate sometimes.

Carmen Macdonald wrote 4 years ago

AlseaA- I agree completely.

Oldguy wrote 4 years ago

My favorite quote "If you did not fish for Steelhead prior to 1992 you have never seen a good Steelhead Run". Well written and point on! Thanks for taking the time to put it together. I am on board to do whatever it takes.

Oldguy wrote 4 years ago

My favorite quote "If you did not fish for Steelhead prior to 1992 you have never seen a good Steelhead Run". Well written and point on! Thanks for taking the time to put it together. I am on board to do whatever it takes.

fishhog54 wrote 4 years ago

I have been saying this for years now. Carmen you have nailed it right on the head. Living 5 minutes from the Clackamas, it is almost a mute point to even fish it any more. Yes I still catch fish from it but not even a fraction of what it was or could be. I see this trend all over the NW now and it is a travesty. I truly believe this is being done by design.Their goal to stop sport fishing and make everything Wild. And I can honestly say I see little to no results from the acclimation sites along the Clackamas.

Load these rivers up with hatchery fish!!

Marc Price

Soul Harvest wrote 4 years ago

Having spent over 55 years fishing and being involved in the management of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead populations, I can only say that this is one of the best written articles on the hatchery/wild fish controversy. At various times in the past, I have been inclined to write about the interactions of hatchery and wild fish, but could never get beyond my emotions. Thanks for stating what is the obvious truth, Carmen.

Greg Drais, Soul Harvest.

firboy wrote 4 years ago

I live in SW washington and I am old enough to have seen better times for the fisherman in our region, the current policies and the greed need to change.I think everyone is starting to get a little "ANGRY".

Roger Heltemes

Hookset wrote 4 years ago

What a great write up, I agree with Carmen 100%.

When the coastal steelhead runs crashed in the early 90's, we're talking apx. an 80% reduction from one year to the next, we were left dumbfounded for an explanation. No one could explain the loss, and El'Nino was considered the primary reason for the decline.

However, no one could explain why so many returning wild and hatchery fish had obvious old (healed over) and new net marks.

Our theory was and still is that the high seas drift net fleet located the migratory path of steelhead and started targeting these fish outside US waters. The fleet of drift netters made some news back then, but nobody made the connection and proved the steelhead decline was related to high seas drift netters.

I believe this decline started much of the hatchery vs wild fish debate. Except it wasn't one fish over the other, both hatchery and wild declined equally.

And now, fisherman are left to fish for scraps when compared to what steelhead runs used to be in the 70's and early 80's.

You also make a great point about the economical impact to rural communities where these fisheries exist.

In small towns on every major river, there were tackle stores, motels, hotels, restaurants, boat storage, marinas, paid launch sites, motor repair shops, bait dealers and small stores that fisherman supported and relied on in their frequent trips.

Having fewer fish has impacted thousands of people and businesses all along the coast. Removing hatcheries wasn't the answer then and it's not the answer now.

Please, bring back the fish.

Jerry Dove wrote 4 years ago

Wow, I have never seen this article before. I raise fish and I agree 100%. Jerry Dove, Whiskey Creek Volunteer Salmon Hatchery, Tillamook OR. By the way the hatchery property is owned by OSU and they lease it to Tillamook Anglers for $1.00 a year.

BCFISHON1 wrote 4 years ago

makes sense,fix the enviroment and give back my hatchery runs

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