A Breeder’s Approach to Hatcheries

Bruce Brown’s Mountain in the Clouds contains one of the most extensive collections of history relating to hatchery operations. There are no really comprehensive efforts. He recounts the story of Ernie Brannon’s work running a hatchery on the Elwha River on the Olympic Penninsula in Washington state. “Brannon thought he was practicing ‘selective breeding’ to create a large hatchery fish, but in fact he was draining off the last of the tyee for no proven gain.”52 But the reason no gain was proven is that Brannon worked in isolation, and the work was never adequately documented. Brannon's viewpoint—that the chinook breed could be improved—was never adopted as official policy by the state of Washington. Indeed, today, under the outspoken leadership of Bernard Shanks, the state purports to be against hatcheries even as it operates them.

But as one fishery biologist observed in 1976, “[g]enetics have played an important role in developing superior strains of plants and animals basically suited to changing environments, and why not use these principles for fish?”53 He pointed out successful efforts with genetic culling of steelhead at Skamania Hatchery over many years. Nearly twenty years ago, renowned Canadian fish biologist W. E. Ricker recommended that hatcheries should breed selectively from larger and older fish to offset the effects of overfishing.54

Another pioneer whose efforts are recounted by Mr. Brown was Lauren Donaldson, a University of Washington professor who wanted to breed fish that could survive in urban environments. According to Mr. Brown,

“By the mid-1950s, he had established a small run of Chinook and steelhead that were larger for their age than anything that had ever been observed in the wilds. The result of systematic selective breeding, Donaldson’s fish were thick bodied and extremely fecund (one rainbow produced more than 23,000 eggs, more than twenty times the number a wild fish could carry in one spawning). His fish were shorter lived and smaller at maturity than wild fish (which reach forty-five pounds and live as long as nine years), but when he laid one of his two-year-old fish weighing ten pounds out on the campus grass next to a wild fish of the same age weighing a few ounces, who could doubt that man had bettered nature?”55

Modern biologists, blind to the possibility of breeding salmon, disparage Donaldson’s work as merely proving that fish that were fed more would grow faster, but they ignore the solid evolutionary foundation for Donaldson’s work.

Past selective breeding efforts in hatcheries were narrowly focused on the short-term interests of the hatchery managers. First and foremost, the selective breeding was to enhance survival in the hatcheries rather than throughout the whole life cycle, focusing on fast growth and ease of production. As one writer explained, “[t]he most successful fish in hatcheries are those that are tolerant of crowding, learn to swim toward mechanical or human feeders at the right times, and can outcompete other fish in the pursuit of pelletized food”.56

But there is no reason that hatchery managers cannot focus on a more advanced measure of “fitness”: survival over the entire life cycle, not just to the point of release. The simple device of giving hatchery managers their performance evaluations based on adult returns might accomplish more than any other single means of improving salmon hatcheries.

We can breed salmon just like we breed cows. Even the harshest critics of hatcheries acknowledge that “inbreeding, genetic drift, hybridization and competition can be drastically reduced if proper guidelines are adopted”.57 A letter to the Editor of the Capital Press put it in simpler terms: "Is the Fish and Game [Department] saying that their biologists can't raise anything but genetically inferior fish? If so, then maybe we ought to get some 14-year-old farm child to guide them through a genetics course."58

It is probably true that if we don't take care to preserve an adequate genetic diversity among hatchery stocks, we run the risk of losing the whole population to unexpected problems. The classic example is a disease that wipes out every hatchery stock, while certain wild strains, had they not gone extinct, might have survived.

Of course, there are far greater threats to the human race from losses in genetic diversity than arise from salmon breeding. There is less genetic diversity in the plant species like corn, wheat and rice that form our basic food supply than in salmon, yet society is unwilling to make the investment to preserve every distinct population segment of those species.

In the long run, genetic engineering techniques may offer the ability to give salmon greater resistance against parasites, warm water, and other factors limiting salmon production. Scientists in Norway, coping with the problem of water that is too cold, are already attempting to put the cold-resistant genes of winter flounder into Atlantic salmon.59

Some sportsfishers say they can tell the difference between hatchery-raised and naturally-spawning salmon (or more often, steelhead) as soon as they are hooked. It may well be true that even after four years out in the ocean, hatchery salmon are not as “wild” as wild salmon. These are subtle differences, however, and all but a tiny minority of purists would find excitement in hooking a forty-pound hatchery chinook salmon in the Columbia River.

The overwhelming “problem” with hatcheries is political, not scientific. As Gregg Easterbrook has explained:

“Environmental orthodoxy rejects hybridization of species as a horrifying offense against nature, though in nature hybridization has been ongoing since the beginning of life, being essential to the system by which species radiate into new forms. Here is the Stop-in-Place Fallacy at work—a conceit that somehow on the day when the Endangered Species Act was signed a Correct global alignment of habitat and species was in effect, and any change after that must be seen as ghastly . . .

“It’s disquieting to hear some environmentalists go on without a hint of irony about how ‘locally distinct populations’ must have their ‘unique genetic ecotypes’ preserved against ‘non-native populations’ encroaching at the border. How can racial barriers be awful for humankind and vital for animals? To nature this entire line of thought must seem detached from reality. Genes constantly mingle in nature. That’s part of the point of the enterprise.”60

In other words, laws against miscegenation, and in favor of apartheid, anathema to liberals everywhere, are the cornerstone of environmental orthodoxy.

But for the fact that the harvest managers reject this aspect of environmental orthodoxy (and properly so), they would have voluntarily shut down salmon hatcheries. And if the environmentalists weren’t taking money from the harvesters, lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act probably would have forced the shut down of hatcheries.

Some among the tribes, more connected to the land, recognize that salmon "farming" with hatcheries makes sense as a relationship between humans, salmon, and the Pacific Northwest. They believe they can operate hatcheries that will bring runs of salmon back to the river for tribal harvesters. They might have trouble competing with fish farmers who raise salmon in pens, but their salmon would probably be a tastier product. As of 1997, the Northwest Power Planning Council, relying on the advice of its Independent Science Group (re-christened the Independent Science Advisory Board) has told the Bonneville Power Administration to defer millions of dollars of funding to the tribes hoping to do this.

52 B. Brown, Mountain in the Clouds 102.

53 J. Ayerst, “The Role of Hatcheries in Rebuilding Steelhead Runs of the Columbia River System”, in E. Schwiebert (ed.), Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead 84, Special Pub. No. 10 (Am. Fish. Soc. 1977).

54 W.E. Ricker, “Causes of the Decrease in Age and Size of Chinook Salmon (Onchorhychus tshawytscha)”, Can. Tech. Rep. of Fish. & Aquat. Sci. No. 944, at 14 (May 1980).

55 B. Brown, Mountain in the Clouds 150. Some people accuse Donaldson of force-feeding the fish, but I have never seen any proof of it.

56 M. Goodman, 20 Envt’l Law at 128.

57 M. Goodman, 20 Envt’l Law at 146.

58 J. Austin, Jr. of Sixes, Oregon, Capital Press, Oct. 3, 1997.

59 Reported in G. Easterbrook, A Moment on the Earth 421.

60 G. Easterbrook, A Moment on the Earth 571.

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