by Bill Taylor
The biggest topic for those involved with Pacific Northwest salmon and steelhead these days hovers around the hatchery fish debate. The lines have been drawn and it is fairly apparent this is a black and white issue for most concerned. Either you are a proponent for letting wild fish rebuild on their own or you would like to see broodstock and/or hatchery supplementation to existing runs. The demographics in each camp are very similar to those in the battles over our forests and logging practices several years ago. I know all generalizations are flawed, that there are exceptions and outliers, gray area, so to speak in making these delineations, but I feel it helps to paint the picture. On one side, is the environmentalist crowd that believes wild fish populations can rebound by taking man's influence out of the equation. Leave them alone and don't taint the gene pool with inferior hatchery supplements…the fish will respond. The assertion here is that there are still native fish in river systems that have had little or no hatchery influence on their gene pools. These fish will somehow rebound, their genetics established without the existence of modern man in a current world that is dominated by him. These groups are backed by likeminded citizens, also entities that stand to gain by hatchery plant reductions. On the other side are sport fishing people, tribal groups, and commercial fishing operations that advocate for supplementation to keep run sizes at levels that will help not only local economies but also the ecosystem at large. The assertion here is that taking away broodstock and hatchery stocks will create a vacuum in the Pacific Ocean and Northwest watershed ecosystems. Hatcheries have been going for 100 years or more in some cases. Many systems now have new "wild" fish that are the descendants of prior years hatchery plants. It is obviously not quite so simple. One thing is certain, the fish are caught in the middle.
The subject matter can be very difficult to follow for the layperson. Terms such as "fitness", "habitat", "predation" and others all serve to make analysis for the untrained individual a start/stop/start/stop process. Actually gaining a grasp of what is happening is difficult at best and impossible at worst. As much as many of the most knowledgeable would like to think, it is really no different for them! Many unknowns come in to play in the analyses of what happens to these fish. How much and what types of habitat reconstruction will help runs rebound? What are the oceanic conditions at any point in time where different stocks happen to be frequenting? How many smolts are actually eaten by cormorants and caspian terns? How many adult salmon are being taken by pinnepeds? How many strays are frequenting other streams where no hatchery programs are present? How many hatchery strays have already impacted "native" runs and to what degree? How much effect did non-human predators have on salmon before pre-modern man? How many salmonids perish at the expense of human industry practices not involving hatchery fish (as a result of dams, siltation, etc)? Why are hatchery fish the target when there are so many unknowns involving habitat, predation, oceanic conditions, and other factors that may actually be bigger factors in the scheme of things? The answers to these and a myriad of other pertinent questions have not been precisely calculated, some may never be answered. In this humble layperson's opinion, it would be presumptuous for a layperson judge to make a ruling in favor, one way or the other, without a lot more background than it appears none of us even have yet.
Several things are well known. Modern man has made a considerable impact on the global ecosystem. Regarding the Pacific Northwest, hydroelectric dams, logging, mining, general over taking of lands for human use, pollution, and a bevy of other factors have made salmon have to survive in a less hospitable world. We have even removed woody debris from rivers and streambeds, incorrectly thinking having water move downstream unimpeded was a good thing. Hatchery fish have lived with native fish, whether or not in harmony, for several decades now. Strays do occur regularly as a natural part of the anadromous salmon life cycle. This means that local populations are constantly obtaining new DNA from other gene pools. Hatchery fish have bred with native populations and will continue to do so as long as they are present. It is also certain that what ever ways end up being the prescribed treatments for these fish in the Pacific Northwest, there will be strong ecosystem and economic impacts to human and non-human inhabitants in this region. Now that we have thrust ourselves in to ultimately becoming the protector of salmon and steelhead, it goes without saying that we better know what we are doing.
If we decide to wipe out hatcheries, broodstock programs, and the like, where do we stop? Should we have mile wide buffers, implementing eminent domain proceedings on all waterways to ensure pre-modern man sanctity of riparian habitat? Do we include non-anadromous stocks in the mix? Do we capture all fish for inspection to destroy all specimens that display hatchery characteristics? How do we handle the economic downturn created by eliminating thousands of fishing related occupations that will be caused by eliminating hatchery production, not to mention the blow to local economies that rely on these fish runs? How will state governments fund the departments of fish and wildlife in Oregon, Washington, possibly Idaho when sport fishermen eventually revolt and discontinue purchase of salmon-steelhead tags and in the case of Oregon, Columbia River endorsements? Do we continue to let non-human predators have their fair share of the pie or do we eliminate a portion to offset the decline in numbers of smolts and adults frequenting the waters? The complexity of the issues is mind boggling, so much so that it will take thousands of researchers, observers, and consultants to come up with rational solutions.
In the interim, lawsuits are being created and settled by virtue of limited amounts of studies in front of legal systems that are seemingly ill equipped to comprehend the magnitude of the real issues. While it may take a team of biologists to determine fitness of broodstock fish or the values of augmentation in a given river, it seems pretty clear to this layman that in order to have a solid understanding of the multitude of waterways in the northwest, studies will have to be done on all rivers, streams, and creeks to inventory virtually all steelhead and salmon, coming and going, so we can ascertain what are indeed the situations, how many wild, how many hatcheries, broodstocks, strays, when they are leaving and when they are returning. These studies should be done by independent third parties and/or by combinations of researchers from both sides. This way, the numbers will be irrefutable per study. Let both sides take their monies and apply them to salmon research rather than to spend it all in court. We also need to find a way to improve riparian habitat together, including carcass plantings, to simulate as best as is economically reasonable, pre-modern man conditions. Until we know what the true answers are, we need to expand augmentation/supplementation techniques in lieu of old style hatcheries so as to create more natural processes of rearing of juvenile salmon and steelhead. Ultimately, we have to find ways to accommodate these fishes' genetic makeups. Leaving them to fend for themselves in an inhospitable man made environment seems to me like a game of Russian roulette.About the Author
Bill Taylor is an all around Oregon hunter/gatherer and full time guide with a passion for not only fishing but clams, crab, wild mushrooms, forest berries, big game and bird hunting. http://www.ospreyguideadventures.com/