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Photo by Luke Kelly

Swimming Upstream – November 2013

Category: Newsletter Articles | Posted by: Jonathan | 11/20/13 | Comments: 4

Summary: The latest on hatchery reform from the WSC's Executive Director...

Photo by Kirk WernerI’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.

Elwha Fish HatcherySo 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.

Photo by Luke KellyThis 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.

Mykiss vobiscum—

Bob Margulis
Executive Director, WSC

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4 Responses

  1. Greg Corrado says:

    In A Perfect World. But this isn’t. If you eliminate hatcheries you reduce fishing which reduces revenue both via licenses and sales of fishing gear and related taxes. You virtually eliminate the ability to keep any fish which especially in the non flyfishing world will end fishing altogether. I don’t care if I never keep another fish, but there are a lot of people who only will fish if they can keep them.

    I also want to teach my grandkids to fly fish just as I taught my kids, but that is not going to happen on the Elwha if we don’t have a hatchery as I will be dead before the run is built.

    If we were honest about this we would end the killing of Wild fish by everyone, Native or not.

    • Bob Margulis says:

      You raise some good points–but consider this.
      In 2003, the last year Oregon F&W released coho smolts in the Salmon River near Lincoln City, there were an estimated 50 wild coho in the river. After six years without any hatchery fish the return to the Salmon was 3,600+ wild coho. As for the Elwha, it was only five years after St. Helens turned the Toutle into a virtual mud flow that wild steelhead returned. While it will require some patience–these examples give us hope that we are not talking about anything approaching your lifetime.

  2. […] however, is neither the place nor time for the anti-hatchery argument—suffice it to say that hatcheries are not very popular with most anglers in these parts. Neither are dams, but I […]

  3. Dylan Tomine says:

    When all the best available science points to the negative impact hatchery fish have on wild run recovery, I think we have to look at longer term solutions than just what we can fish for now. Ideally, healthy wild runs would create a thriving, self-sustaining fishery for sport, tribal and commercial interests. Combine that with the savings tax payers would see from canceling the insanely low ROI we currently get on hatchery “investments” and the answer seems clear.

    Look at the Skeena or Dean. While they continue to have numerous issues preventing full historic run sizes, they support thriving wild runs of steelhead that bring in millions of dollars to local economies. All done with–and probably because of–zero hatcheries.

    I think we need to have faith that Mother Nature will produce more steelhead than we can with hatcheries, and our addiction to those hatcheries is one of the main factors keeping Mother Nature from being able to do her job. If you want to fish with your grandkids, consider also that the might want to have fish to pursue with their kids as well. Keeping hatchery fish out of our rivers is the single best thing we can do to ensure that.

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