Redefining a Role for Hatcheries

Among politically-correct biologists, there is now an almost fanatical emphasis on preserving the genetic purity of individual salmon stocks. In dozens of conference rooms in Portland and Seattle, federal, state and tribal fishery managers meet to debate whether and to what extent salmon stocks not indigenous to a particular watershed might be introduced there.

Among animal breeders, however, and evolutionary biologists, the power of crossing different stocks is recognized as one of the prime movers in creating new breeds of animals with desired characteristics.21 So long as the process is not random, and careful records are kept, there is no reason to believe that salmon cannot be bred as well. Most experiments may well result in mongrel salmon that do not fare well as they migrate downstream, grow in the ocean and return. But some may produce salmon with hybrid vigor, better adapted to survive in the modern Columbia River Basin. Salmon breeders might consider the particularly successful strains, like the Lake Okanogan sockeye, which migrate 900 miles over nine dams. Perhaps this breed could be crossed with other sockeye stocks.

Doing this will require abandoning the “hands-off” attitude toward Nature that seems to motivate environmentalists. Like the dam builders who saw in the Grand Coulee an opportunity to improve Nature’s original design, those who would work to create better salmon runs would accelerate a natural hybridization process that is common in all fish.

It makes a lot of sense to establish some rivers or tributaries as reserves where hatcheries will be “off limits”, as a hedge against catastrophic mismanagement of hatcheries. We might even let communities elect whether to pursue an all-wild, all-hatchery, or mixed approach on a tributary-by-tributary basis, so long as harvest regulation below the tributaries assures that each community reaps the fruits of its own salmon experiments.

Indeed, some smaller rivers might be designated as salmon refuges where neither hatcheries nor harvest (other than catch-and-release) is allowed. Politically-prominent marine biologists believe that such an approach is the only long-term solution for chronically overfished stocks.22 But in some tributaries, where substantial hatcheries have been operating for years, it makes a lot more sense to bite the bullet and make hatcheries work, without regard for remnant wild stocks.

While hatcheries should be free to experiment with techniques for improving adult returns, all the hatchery releases in the Columbia River Basin need to be coordinated by a single authority to optimize the total returns. There is only one obvious role for the federal government, and that is making sure that the total number of fish released does not exceed the carrying capacity of the ecosystem.

This may include ensuring that hatchery releases do not interfere with each other. For example, if several hatcheries in the same river release their smolts at the same time, they may compete for food and habitat. Release times can also be optimized based on the abundance of estuarine predators. Hatcheries that wind up spreading strays all over the Basin might also need central regulation if they can't cure the problem in a reasonable time. So long as the single authority did not attempt to meddle with the details of hatchery operations, and just kept the pastures from being overgrazed, so to speak, everything would probably work out well.

State governments seem to have failed at managing the hatcheries. There may not be a long-term enough perspective in state government. Personally, as part of a global and final settlement of Treaty rights, I would give the tribes a chance to manage the salmon resource by running most or all of the Columbia Basin hatcheries. New upriver hatcheries, like the Yakama and Umatilla Hatcheries can bring mitigation more in line with geographic demands.

Right now, the tribes control only a fraction of the hatcheries. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is actively resisting efforts by the Nez Perce Tribe to assume operational control of Kooskia National Fish Hatchery, which is located within the Reservation boundaries. Reportedly, the Tribe would like to change its mission and produce different stocks.23 The Nez Perce could probably apply some useful common sense to hatchery management. Hundreds of years ago, they and the Palouse were probably the most advanced horse breeders among Native Americans.24

A global salmon settlement turning over control of nearly all the hatcheries to the tribes, letting them sort out what works and what doesn’t, would probably represent the best hope for improving salmon hatcheries. It could be the tribes’ responsibility to create the salmon, to be shared 50/50 in accordance with the Boldt principle. Because there are more than a dozen tribes, they will not all be locked into one approach to the problem. The alternative and current path, greater federal regulation, might produce an improved set of guidelines for hatchery operations, but a single set of guidelines is unlikely to be the best approach for many different tributaries and fish stocks.

21 J. Weiner, The Beak of the Finch 157-58.

22 See, e.g., “Refuges proposed to save fish”, The Herald, June 17, 1997.

23 AP, “Tribe’s bid on hatchery is rejected”, The Spokesman-Review, Dec. 15, 1996.

24 K. Petersen, River of Life, Channel of Death 51.

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