I’m often asked something like “if you could wave your magic fishing rod and do one thing to save steelhead, what would it be?” Well, we’ll never recover the Columbia Basin runs while the dams are in place, and California has a variety of issues that are much more focused on habitat and hydro. And habitat is an issue everywhere but habitat restoration is a long-term investment that doesn’t show results in fish population increase for a couple of decades. The simple answer is that closing the vast majority of hatcheries would be the easiest, least costly, potentially most effective science-based approach to recovering wild steelhead across multiple geographies. And while my fishing rod has no such magic, the many peer-reviewed scientific studies that indicate interactions between hatchery and wild fish have a negative impact on wild steelhead has finally become an unwelcome truth that Federal agencies can no longer ignore.
So what’s the big deal about hatchery fish? Studies show that hatchery steelhead smolts (in Washington Chambers Creek for winter-run and Skamania for summer-run steelhead) have been raised to do well in tanks. They are fed daily, suffer no predation, and have over many generations become ill-suited for survival outside hatcheries. When hatchery smolts are first released into a stream, greatly outnumbering the local wild smolt population, they push the wild smolts out of the best lies and cause the wild smolts to have to work even harder to survive and grow before outmigrating to the ocean. In addition, this artificially larger group of outmigrating smolts attracts predators. When the hatchery smolts return as adults they are supposed to behave like aquatic homing pigeons and return to the hatchery. Unfortunately many hatchery smolts didn’t read that book and some sizable number head for the spawning gravel to either mate with each other (which produces few viable smolts but takes up valuable space) or with wild fish (which significantly reduces the productivity of wild fish). The result is not only fewer wild smolts in the next generation, but also less fit ‘wild’ fish. A wild female steelhead will be visited by a handful of steelhead while on her redd—as well as additional resident rainbow trout that sneak in to deposit sperm in the redd while the process of mating occurs between male and female steelhead. The result is a future generation of steelhead with strong genetic diversity to insure evolutionary fitness. So hopefully this has helped explain why there is hatchery litigation related to the issues identified above in each state on the West Coast : the Elwha (WA), Sandy (OR), McKenzie (OR), Trinity (CA) and Mad Hat (CA).
“Hatchery operations do not adversely affect wild fish and continue programs that restore native runs.” Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) 2013-2015 Capital Budget Request.
This quote above from WDFW reflects how hard this change will be. WDFW operates over 80 hatcheries and would like to build more. The one recent example of a hatchery having been removed, Snider Creek on the Sol Duc, is primarily thanks to work by the Wild Steelhead Coalition and Native Fish Society. The 2008 Washington Statewide Steelhead Management Plan calls for the development of Wild Steelhead Management Zones—rivers where steelhead hatcheries are removed to allow wild steelhead populations to recover without the interference of hatchery fish—and it now appears that WDFW, with a nudge from the feds, is starting down that road. This is a great beginning and we are working to coordinate involvement of the wild fish recovery community—and looking forward to collaborating with WDFW and NOAA to help them achieve their goals in this regard. There’s more than I can squeeze into this little column and you can expect to see many more Adipose articles on this and related topics. I hope you will take the time to understand the issues and become part of the solution. Please send us your thoughts, your questions, and your contributions to help with our work.
Executive Director, WSC