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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.

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