The Wild v. Hatchery Choice: How Much Diversity Do We Really Need?

Most people think that the Endangered Species Act was written in such absolute terms because it was meant to protect the very last few members of a species. Probably the members of Congress who voted for the Act thought that was what they were doing. If there were just a few sockeye or chinook salmon left in the world, the Act’s provisions would make a lot of sense.

The provisions are draconian, as befits an act to save the last few members of a species. For example, once the government designates "critical habitat" for the salmon, no "adverse modification" of that habitat is supposed to be allowed. What is “adverse modification”? Environmentalists argue that any change in the habitat that interferes with the salmon should be a prohibited “adverse modification”.

Activities that "jeopardize" the salmon are not allowed to go forward either. “Jeopardize” means whatever federal regulators want it to mean. The most significant salmon case yet decided by the courts, described in Chapter 9, affirmed the National Marine Fisheries Services’ assertion that a plan that improved salmon survival “jeopardized” the salmon. While we persuaded a higher court to vacate that opinion, the federal agencies continue to act as if improving salmon survival through agency action is not enough to comply with  7 of the Endangered Species Act.

But if salmon hatcheries were evaluated under the same legal standards as logging or running hydroelectric dams, they would probably be closed by application of the Endangered Species Act. There is mounting evidence that hatchery fish compete with wild fish for food and space. Studies have found that when hatchery fish are released in a stream, they tend to displace the wild fish, sometimes even “residualizing” and remaining in the stream without migrating.43 Hatchery-released juveniles tend to be larger than wild juveniles, and comparatively more vulnerable to predators.

Biologists think that flooding rivers with hatchery juveniles may increase predation on wild stocks, causing an adverse effect on wild juveniles. Large steelhead smolts released from hatcheries even eat smaller chinook smolts. Many writers have observed that hatchery coho “bred and reared to attain larger size by the time of release can swamp a stream system and displace the smaller (and more fit) wild coho”.44 The National Marine Fisheries Service even declared lower Columbia River coho extinct in part because of past hatchery operations.

One question that the citizens of the Pacific Northwest ought to be facing is: do we want all this absolute protection for every single river with salmon in it, or do we want more rivers full of salmon? People who have weaker stocks of salmon (upriver interests) think we need near absolute prohibitions on development. People with big hatchery operations (lower river states and tribes) want to continue running their hatcheries.

Somebody needs to look at the larger picture. When protecting one creek of salmon causes repercussions all the way to Alaska, somebody needs to think about whether this makes sense. Nobody does. We continue to apply absolutist protections that can never recover upriver runs, while maintaining huge hatchery operations that continue to extinguish wild stocks given continued heavy harvests.

At the moment, the world is swimming in salmon. There is a glut of salmon in Alaska, with salmon prices plunging. There are salmon farms in Norway that flood the market with chinook salmon, being the best species to eat. Today, four out of ten salmon sold are raised in farms.45 By the summer of 1996, prices for pink salmon seined in the coves and inlets of Southeast Alaska were sinking to record lows of 10 to 14 per pound.46 By the fall of 1996, wholesalers in Portland, Oregon were offering 30 a pound for Columbia River chinook salmon, 20 a pound for steelhead, and 10 a pound for "tule" stock (fall chinook salmon).47

Only a few public figures have had the courage to point out the irony of this situation, and they have all been vilified for it. During her campaign for office, Idaho Representative Helen Chenoweth held up cans of salmon and had salmon bakes to point out the problem, and now faces students who ridicule her rallies by throwing cans at the podium and bumper stickers that say “can Helen, not salmon”. Washington Senator Slade Gorton, who was identified as supporting the idea of getting more salmon in the rivers but abandoning efforts to save particularly weak stocks, continues to be the subject of hostile pieces in the media.

The Indian tribes believe that NMFS has gone overboard in its attempts to preserve each and every salmon population as inviolate. They complain that "NMFS is insisting on the reproductive isolation of Snake River salmon, which can easily lead to inbreeding and the loss of genetic diversity within those populations . . ."48 Ted Strong, the Executive Director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, has even come out against listing additional anadromous fish species under the Endangered Species Act. “The tribes fully expect that NMFS will use this action [a proposed listing of mid-Columbia steelhead] to keep the tribes from putting fish in the river.”49

Professor Ernest Brannon of the University of Idaho’s Aquaculture Research Institute has observed that the Northwest Power Planning Council’s Independent Science Group has no expert in aquaculture science and worries that “the valuable role hatcheries can play in the Columbia Basin can easily be under-rated or even ignored”.50 He wrote the Independent Science Group with evidence of the potential for success with hatcheries, warning that “[w]ithout the same intense attention given to aquaculture science that each of you give to your own disciplines, opinions can easily follow the popular view espoused by most biologists familiar primarily with just the failures.”51

In other words, if you hire ecologists and conservation biologists to tell you how to recover salmon, they’ll tell you to take out dams. If you hire aquaculture experts, they’ll tell you you can grow the fish. Ordinary people know something is fishy about the sudden attack on hatcheries. As one told me, "I don't understand it. We breed salmon in hatcheries and cows in farms. Nobody worries about endangered cows."

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

44 E.g., R Steelquist, Field Guide to the Pacific Salmon 15 (Sasquatch Books 1992).

45 S. Doughton, "Salmon glut puts fishermen in troubled financial waters", The News Tribune, June 17, 1996.

46 Id.; one person told me that prices hit lows of five to eight cents a pound.

47 C. Thompson, "Tribal fisherman net scores of eager customers", The Sunday Oregonian, Sept. 22, 1996. Bypassing the wholesale markets, the Tribal fishermen were selling salmon off their boats for $2 per pound.

48 R. Turner, "Conservation Biology", Wana Chinook Tymoo, Issue One, 1996, at 32 (CRITFC).

49 Quoted in Clearing Up, Aug. 5, 1996, at 6.

50 E. Brannon to M. Walker, April 8, 1997.

51 E. Brannon to M. Walker, April 8, 1997.

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