The "Soft Underbelly" of Hatchery Mismanagement: Bad Breeding Techniques

“It is far too common a practice for farmers to cross the stock of two herds. . . . All stock breeders should keep pure-bred animals. Each breed has been produced because the animals are best for some particular purpose. The breeder should determine what his purpose is and then choose the proper pure breed for that purpose. The animals of that breed are sure to be more satisfactory than any cross breeds or grades. Pure-bred animals have fixed characteristics and may be expected to come true to type. The superior qualities of the parents will be found in the offspring.” Dr. Kary Davis, Productive Farming (1917).

What ordinary farmers have known since the turn of the century, government fish breeders have been slow to recognize. Bill Bakke, the founder and former leader of Oregon Trout, refers to hatchery operations as the "soft underbelly" of fishery management. The bureaucrats running the hatcheries made a lot of mistakes. Most were mistakes that animal breeders dealing with other species have known not to make for decades.

No attempts were made to keep track of the genetic history—bloodlines—of hatchery releases. Eggs from one hatchery were moved to another hatchery willy-nilly, with no documented regard for preserving existing runs. Anyone who has ever gotten involved with purebred dogs or horses or any animal knows that the first things the breeders worry about are the ancestors, and they keep a careful record of those ancestors.

Not coincidentally, some of the largest-scale and poorest hatchery practices occurred in areas where salmon are now in the worst shape: the Middle Snake River and its tributaries. In the Snake River Basin hatchery releases grew from 1-2 million per year in the 1960s and 1970s to over 20 million in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Rapid River hatchery, constructed by Idaho Power Co. to mitigate for the effects of the Hell’s Canyon Complex, used spring chinook broodstock whose spawning grounds were above the Complex.24 While those stocks were at least from the same river basin, biologists question whether their life history was compatible with wild stocks in the lower Snake.25

In addition, hatchery operators in the Snake River Basin also imported eggs from many other stocks outside the Snake River Basin, including the Carson, Klickitat, Cowlitz, Leavenworth, Marion Forks and South Santiam stocks from west of the Cascade Mountains.26 Studies have demonstrated that the genetic structure of “native” Snake River stocks in some streams, like Catherine Creek, now resembles the imported stocks more than native stocks.27 Thus many Snake River spring chinook now protected as endangered on account of their valuable genetic structure are in fact mongrels.

State and tribal hatchery operators would use sperm from one captured male to fertilize eggs from literally dozens of females. In nature, the practice is just the opposite, where more than one male frequently fertilizes the eggs of a single female.28 Culls from the hatchery tanks, often unfit or diseased, were released to the streams.29

Worse still, bacterial kidney disease (BKD) was pandemic among hatchery salmon. Many biologists believe that the disease was transferred from hatchery to wild stocks. Juvenile salmon with BKD may have significantly lower survival rates, dying salmon slowly over a period of one to three months.30 In a 1988 review of the effects of dams and hatcheries on Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead, Howard Raymond of the National Marine Fisheries Service asked:

While Raymond speculated that dam passage exacerbated the effects of BKD, no one has any solid documentation of such an effect.

After nearly two decades, fishery managers have finally learned how to control BKD, pasteurizing the ground-up fish they served to juveniles in the tanks. Anecdotal accounts suggest that by the mid-1990s, outbreaks of the disease are less prevalent. However, BKD may now be pandemic among hatchery fish—like the common cold among humans. Unless and until salmon populations evolve resistance to BKD, losses from BKD may continue to bar the achievement of historic return rates.

Nearly all hatcheries tried to cut costs by speeding the growth of the juvenile salmon and releasing them earlier. At least one writer has speculated that this “tends to make the succeeding stages of their life correspondingly brief, and means that they weigh less at maturity than wild salmon”, but I have seen no scientific evidence of this phenomenon.32 There are a number of studies that show that hatchery fish show poorer growth after release, but that is largely because they have been fed for many months and have some trouble learning to hunt for themselves.

Indeed, the longstanding feeding method at many hatcheries was to fling the food by hand into the tanks. The juvenile salmon learned to associate the shadow of the hatchery worker with food, and rise to the surface. Out in the river, when attacked by birds, that is a fatal instinct. There is also evidence that hatchery juveniles don’t get the idea that they should wander out to shallow areas to find food while migrating downstream.33

The poor biological practices at hatcheries went hand in hand with poor management practices. But as science gradually promoted improvements in biological practices, government gradually promoted decay in management practices.

24 Declaration of Doug Neeley, Feb. 7, 1993, at 7, filed in IDFG v. NMFS, No. 93-1603-MA (D Or).

25 Id.

26 Id.

27 R. Waples, D. Teel & P. Aebersold, “A genetic monitoring and evaluation program for supplemented populations of salmon and steelhead in the Snake River basin”, BPA Project No. 89-096 (1991).

28 B. Brown, Mountain in the Clouds 118-19.

29 J. Cone, A Common Fate 194.

30 H. Raymond, "Effects of Hydroelectric Development and Fisheries Enhancement on Spring and Summer Chinook Salmon and Steelhead in the Columbia River Basin", N. Am. J. Fish. Mgmt. 8(1):1-24, at 18 (Winter 1988) (reviewing studies).

31 Id.

32 B. Brown, Mountain in the Clouds 102.

33 ISG, Return to the River 206.

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