Improving Hatchery Management

It has long been obvious to all the fisheries managers that more coordination of hatchery operations was necessary. In 1993, they began a comprehensive review, called the Comprehensive Environmental Assessment, which was supposed to look at the global impacts of hatcheries on the Columbia River Basin. The review was also supposed to document compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

National Marine Fisheries Service representatives now say (privately) that the Fish and Wildlife Service people "hijacked" the Comprehensive Environmental Assessment. In the Northwest, the Portland, Oregon office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has traditionally allied with state and tribal agencies against the National Marine Fisheries Service Regional office in Seattle.

In December 1996, the hijacked product was released as a draft programmatic environmental impact statement (DPEIS) called “Impacts of Artificial Salmon and Steelhead Production Strategies in the Columbia River Basin”. The authors, anonymous representatives of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority, adopted a clever strategy to downplay the significance of hatcheries: they proclaimed that the study “is limited in scope to the mainstem migration corridor”.68 Jim Lichatowich correctly observed that “by limiting their scope to the mainstem, it appears that they define away the problem. Most of the problem is in the tributaries or the ocean fisheries”.69

Thus the authors proclaimed that their review of the scientific literature found “no explicit evidence of adverse effects caused by hatcheries in the Columbia River migration corridor (with the exception of impacts on weak stocks in mixed-stock harvests).”70 The conclusion that there was no direct evidence that hatcheries undermined the health of wild fish in the Columbia Basin was sufficiently counter to the mass of evidence that it even triggered adverse media comment.71

The authors of the DPEIS know that high hatchery output fueling high harvests inevitably wipes out weaker stocks, including the endangered Snake River salmon. Their “preferred action” to improve hatchery operations does nothing about it, and includes “[l]imiting overall basinwide production to current levels or very small increases”.72 The DPEIS is a remarkable document in that it lacks the most basic supporting data that would be necessary to draw conclusions about the impacts of hatcheries. Nowhere does it contain a complete history of hatchery releases, or an explanation of what was supposed to have been accomplished by those releases, and what success the hatchery program has enjoyed in the past.

That is because the fishery managers have never bothered to collect the data in many cases, and certainly never to summarize it in any useful fashion. No one makes them do it; everyone relies on their assertions that the problems with salmon production lie elsewhere.

NMFS currently advocates releasing hatchery smolts into the river to “supplement” natural populations. The term "supplement" has no precise definition. Apparently, under the "supplementation" approach, hatcheries are to be used to restock natural streams, with hatchery releases to be phased out once the natural production gets going.

But “much hope is being placed in a concept that remains to be tested and proven each time it is applied”.73 There have only been a few attempts to use supplementation, and it was “rarely successful in increasing natural production”.74 A review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of 300 “supplementation” projects found that “only a few were successful at increasing existing natural runs”.75 Other conclusions of the Service included: “successes were primarily for returning adult fish to harvest; supplementation adversely affects wild stocks; chinook salmon are one of the most difficult species to supplement; and supplementation works better for fish stocks having a shorter run to the ocean”.76 In short, supplementation projects seem to have all the characteristics of hatchery projects generally, except the bad name.

By early 1997, the Northwest media was so hostile to hatcheries that The Oregonian editorialized that “we wonder why state and federal agencies and Indian tribes are still fooling around with the notion that hatcheries can still rebuild the wild runs”.77

Supplementation might work if we pay very careful attention to the question of spawning habitat, including artificial improvement to spawning habitat. Hatchery technology coupled with spawning channels has been very successful in building sockeye runs in Canada, for example.78 But releasing a batch of smolts and hoping that they come back and spawn in the river is like a farmer throwing some seed out in the field and hoping for crops. The farmer will do much better if he or she prepares the ground first.

Hatchery programs are also never going to work unless and until the hatchery operators adopt the attitudes and practices of other breeders of animals. Through careful selection of parents, breeders of pigeons, dogs and even goldfish have been able to shape not only the bodies of these animals but also, in the case of the dogs, their very instincts. Darwin became a pigeon breeder himself in the process of writing the Origin of Species, to better understand the processes of natural selection.79

Natural selection itself will tend to produce fish of the maximum fitness for a particular environment. Hatchery operators, if they are careful, can accelerate the process, by focusing on selecting successful broodstock. Their success will always be apparent two, three, four and five years later, as measured by the percentage of returning adults. Simply publishing measures of success would help hatchery operators figure out what works and what doesn’t. All that is needed is a scientific approach to the problem.

Although a hatchery-based program to restore salmon runs makes the most sense if having more salmon is the goal, right now, having more salmon is not the goal. All other salmon goals in the Columbia River Basin have been displaced in pursuit of a single-minded focus on endangered Snake River salmon. Unless and until the Endangered Species Act is amended or administratively re-interpreted to remove the Snake River salmon from the endangered species list, law, politics and resource constraints will gradually reduce the role of hatcheries from the Columbia River Basin, and the overall numbers of salmon will decline. This process might help a few wild stocks, but will not put salmon in the rivers for people to catch.

68 DPEIS at 2 (CBFWA Dec. 10, 1996) (emphasis in original).

69 Quoted in B. Rudolph, “Hatchery Study Finds Little Impact on Wild Fish”, Clearing Up, Jan. 6, 1997, at 6.

70 DPEIS at 4 (emphasis deleted).

71 See, e.g., “Hatcheries: a failed fix”, The Oregonian, Jan. 7, 1997; B. Rudolph, “Hatchery Study Finds Little Impact on Wild Fish”, Clearing Up, Jan. 6, 1997, at 6.

72 DPEIS at 5.

73 ISG, Return to the River 398.

74 Id. at 400.

75 Cited in “Interim Report, Supplement to Special Report, Lower Snake River Fish and Wildlife Compensation Plan, Lower Snake River, Washington and Idaho, June 1975”, at 15 (USACE April 1996).

76 Id.

77 “Hatcheries: a failed fix”, The Oregonian, Jan. 7, 1997.

78 “Alaskans Say They’re Not Targeting Canadian Sockeye”, NW Fishletter, July 22, 1997,  9.

79 J. Weiner, The Beak of the Finch 31.

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