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Bill Taylor

Bill 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.

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February 06, 2014

A Fishermans View on the Plight of NW Salmon and Steelhead

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/

Comments (8)

hookanook wrote 3 years ago

When the hatcheries are gone and we no longer have any quality fishing opportunities, most of us will not care anything about the fish or their habitat.

duke1122 wrote 3 years ago

While I respect your middle of the road essay, I think your giving the "enviros" a pass. I believe there are dozens of rivers on Vancouver Is. in B.C. where there haven't been hatchery fish mixed in. If the bios just screwed with one of them for a few yeas, many "questions" would be answered. It's probably already been done up there. But why would U. S. fish studiers believe them. My guess is they want to have bought judges control the issue. After all, they locked up the western forests over an owl.

BillH wrote 3 years ago

I think hookanook hit on an important concern. If fishing is so slow that it becomes boring then there will be less participation thus less public interest in the fish or the issues that affect them.

For the sake of wild fish recovery we have totally closed many tributary streams and ended plantings in many rivers of all sizes. The result is that fish continue to run in these streams but not at rates that would support harvest nor create opportunity nor public angling enthusiasm.

We need to plant more fish in more places but upgrade hatchery stocks ie: broodstock programs, as best as is economically practical.

Two examples of what I feel are mismanagment are:(1.) South Fork Nehalem River --open to angling, nothing planted so there is very little participation compared to 20-50 years ago. (2.) Johnson Creek in Portland - closed to steelhead angling but in the late '50's, open, planted, heavy participation including kids and teenagers who could walk or bike to opportunity.

Much of what we are calling "wild fish" are simply the progeny of genetically mixed stocks which have proven themselves survivor stocks.

uplandsandpiper wrote 3 years ago


I want to thank you for this succinct essay on this hugely complex issue. One thing that bugs me most about the salmon/steelhead issue is how the word "environmentalist" is used to pigeon hole a group of people. A lot of people care about the environment, in fact given that you obviously care about habitat, makes you an environmentalist in my mind. I feel we are alienating a lot of folks by talking about "environmentalist" as this evil group when in fact they are the people and organizations we need to restore and protect habitat for both hatchery and wild fish.

The dichotomy you refer to in the first paragraph goes back a long way. In historical documentation it is referred to as the "preservationist" vs the "conservationist" perspective and it fits nicely here. There are those that just want to "preserve" rivers as they were before man arrived on the landscape (e.g. no hatchery fish) or those who like yourself and me who want to "conserve" the resource ultimately so we can maintain use of the resource. The diversity of tools available to conservationists are diverse and includes everything from hatcheries, to habitat restoration, predator control, to dam removal, and modification of regulations to name a few. Whereas the actions of preservationists are limited as they simply want to see all trace of mans influence removed.

Perhaps I am getting hung up on semantics but I think a lot of responsible salmon and steelhead fisherman, who support maintaining hatcheries, consider themselves environmentalists. It is only those extreme perspectives that don't see humans as a natural part of the landscape that consider themselves preservationists. To them the very presence of hatchery fish in the river or a fisherman drifting a pink work taints the beauty of a river. They are of course completely wrong because there is nothing more beautiful than standing knee deep in Cascade snow melt fighting the world's greatest fish. The opportunity to experience that is the right of every man now and hopefully far into the future.

- Tyler Hicks

ospreyadventures wrote 3 years ago

There are a lot of advocacy groups involved in the hatchery/broodstock/wild debate. It is perplexing to me that one, the Native Fish Society, is using the court system to achieve their ends without interface with other fish minded organizations. In my study of this subject, it is readily apparent that there are many groups that have similar, if not parallel agendas. My intent in writing this piece was to center idealistically on what needs to be done. I realize this may not be possible, that it might very well have to be fought out in legal circles. I figure the best deterrent to legal battles would be to show political might in numbers as well as monetaritly. Therefore, it is my hope that these organizations with similar agendas will soon form a coalition that can give the NFS a reason to reconsider their approach.

capttuna wrote 3 years ago

Can we walk and chew gum too? Time for conservationists (those who believe in the wise use of our natural resources - that means commercial fishermen too) to form a united group to lobby our Federal representatives for changes to the EPA to allow loal management of predators. I know it's hard, but no pain- no gain. Or...you can continue to watch the weilders of the whip (the protectionists, who hate progress and a healthy fishery [economy] drive us back to the Stone Age when only the predators harvested the resource.

Im Grumpy wrote 3 years ago

Assuming a generation of salmon is 4 years then I started fishing about 14 salmon generations ago. If the first generation was hatchery born, released into the wild, are the following generations classified as wild or hatchery? Just curious.

Sallysea wrote 3 years ago

As you hear or read about the pros and cons of hatchery fish from researchers, keep in mind genetics is not limited to fish. When a theory is proposed, ask yourself how this might work with dogs, horses or humans. Also Conclusions generated within a research study should not exceed the parameters of the experimental design. In fisheries, they usually do when politically applicable to a cause.

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