“The vast volume of fresh water coming down the Columbia will make it almost impossible ever to pollute it sufficiently to drive away the salmon, and it is hardly possible that civilization will ever crowd its banks to an extent that will endanger that [salmon] industry, so I suppose it is safe to say that Columbia-river salmon will always continue to be a choice dish in all parts of the world. Of course, the increasing demand for fish and growing scarcity of the same will call for more aid toward artificial propagation in order to keep up the supply.” W. A. Wilcox (1896).1

“. . . the several fishery agencies have made good progress toward the objectives that have been established in the past. Losses have been replaced to a surprising degree, entirely new runs have been started in barren drainages, and vigorous fisheries are still being established. The fishery agencies are gradually developing better methods of producing fish in hatcheries.” F. Cleaver (1976).2
“If restoring the fishery is the goal, then revamped hatcheries could perform a useful role. But if the goal is saving wild fish, then most of the scientific evidence points toward weaning ourselves out of the hatchery business, not expanding it”. Editorial, The Oregonian, Jan. 7, 1997.

The current salmon “crisis” is in great measure the result of a rising tension between the goal of putting more fish in the rivers vs. putting wild fish in the rivers. Hatcheries can put more fish in the rivers, but then fishermen catch them along with less productive wild stocks, and inevitably extinguish wild stocks. The Pacific Northwest needs to make a choice between more fish and wild fish, but instead, politicians are promoting yet another component of the Great Salmon Hoax: we can have our salmon, and eat them too.

This is an issue that may someday split the environmentalists from the harvest agencies and their fishermen allies. Right now, environmentalists write law review articles about the vices of hatcheries,3 and gradually gain ground in fishery agencies as more and more policies are promoted to protect the genetic purity of wild fish from hatchery miscegenation. Ultimately, the fishing interests may wake up and regret their alliance with the environmentalists, because there might be a backlash against enormously expensive wild fish programs that don’t put more fish in the rivers.

Given all the factors working against salmon, there is probably no way to get significant numbers of salmon into the Columbia River Basin without extensive hatchery operations. After all, four-fifths of the adult salmon returning to the Columbia River now are hatchery fish.4 Many people think of this as a recent development, but hatcheries have been supplanting natural production for a very long time. As early as 1898, 26 million salmon fry were being released from hatcheries in the Columbia River Basin each year.5 The August 1905 issue of Pacific Fisherman reported that: “There seems no question but that 75 percent of the salmon entering the river are directly attributable to artificial production.”6 This claim may be inflated, but by the 1920s, annual hatchery releases approached 100 million per year.7 Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, hatchery production has hovered around 200 million per year.8

Most people who think that we can shut down hatcheries and restore "wild" salmon naturally don’t understand that much of what they are trying to restore has been gone since the turn of the century. Generally speaking, with the possible exception of strong or recoverable natural runs, it seems more practical to try and get the hatcheries working again. Competent harvest and hatchery management could accomplish this.

The Early Promise of Hatcheries

The architects of the early dams that blocked off access to salmon habitat hoped to maintain the promise of salmon in the river with salmon hatcheries. Biologists carefully captured salmon at the Grand Coulee Dam, and using a fish hatchery at Leavenworth, Washington, the race was transplanted widely below the Dam. Contemporary accounts report the scale of the federal government's efforts: in 1941 the program cost $3,510,000, involving specially-built tank trucks cooled with cracked ice.9

In 1938, Congress passed the Mitchell Act, which was, according to the House Committee Report, “to take care of situations in the salmon industry which arise from the construction of certain government works and particularly from the building of the Bonneville Dam across the Columbia River, near Portland . . .”10 In 1947, water development and fisheries agencies formed the Lower Columbia River Fisheries Development Program to plan and coordinate the use of Mitchell Act funds.

The initial focus was on downriver hatcheries and only the states of Oregon and Washington were involved. Mitchell Act funding built and operated 25 salmon and steelhead hatcheries, 23 of which were located in the Lower Columbia River. The Act also funded the construction of 45 fishways (ladders) throughout the Columbia River Basin and the screening of over 800 irrigation diversions.11

In 1956, Congress directed the Interior Department, administering the Program, to develop fishery resources above McNary Dam. The word “Lower” was dropped, so that the effort became known as the Columbia River Fisheries Development Program.12

When the Corps of Engineers constructed the four lower Snake Dams, they commissioned a review by University of Washington Professor Ernest Salo, who reported that the dams would ultimately cause the loss of 134,500 salmon and steelhead annually.13 Consistent with modern practice, Dr. Salo did not make any truly scientific estimate of the losses to be expected from the projects. Instead, he used a 15% loss per project figure which was, he said, “generally accepted” by “agreement among all parties”.14 As we have seen, these losses significantly overstate current losses.

The Lower Snake River Compensation Plan was designed to mitigate for the estimated losses by releasing some 26,701,600 additional hatchery juvenile salmon and steelhead annually.15 If only 1/2 of one percent of those hatchery fish returned, the adverse effects of the dams would presumably be fully mitigated. Most years, that goal has been (or could, with competent hatchery management, be) achieved. When it couldn’t, as in the case of poor ocean conditions, natural runs would not have been that large anyway.

By 1978, National Marine Fisheries Service research biologist Howard Raymond suggested that hatcheries offered the only hope for improved upriver runs of anadromous fish in the Columbia River Basin. He advised that “[e]ven with improved downstream survival, it is doubtful that these [upriver] stocks will ever return to their former levels”, but “[w]ith improved rearing techniques, hatcheries should provide an even greater contribution to the total run than is presently indicated . . .”16

Areas where salmon no longer can pass upriver can only rely on hatcheries to return large numbers of salmon to the immediate vicinity. Elsewhere, many, many factors have combined to degrade salmon habitat, including logging, mining, and irrigation. Many federal and state regulations are now in place to halt further degradation, many of which range far beyond what is actually needed to protect salmon habitat.

But some changes in habitat may take hundreds of years to undo, and regulation cannot turn back the clock. For example, some biologists believe that some salmon, particularly coho, find beaver ponds create useful habitat.17 With the decline of beaver in the Pacific Northwest as a result of intensive trapping beginning in the mid-1800s,18 such habitat cannot be restored simply by banning logging.

As noted above, historical numbers of salmon and steelhead returning to the Columbia River have remained at high levels since 1937, when Bonneville Dam was constructed.

Figure 16: Salmon and Steelhead Returning to the Columbia River19

Note that the all time high count was reached fifty years after dam construction began.

The hatcheries did not just produce fish returning to the river. They fueled huge ocean harvests. As we have seen, as late as the 1970s, the hatchery program was a success and the Basin was still producing more than ninety percent of the 1880-1930 average catch despite the drastic reduction in available spawning grounds.

For years this represented the great achievement of hatcheries: as eight dams were put in the path of migrating salmon, and available habitat shrank, returns remained roughly constant. So long as natural conditions remained favorable, the hatcheries could offset the loss of freshwater habitat. Even harsh critics of hatcheries, like the Northwest Power Planning Council’s Independent Science Group, admit that “[f]rom a cursory examination of the overall numbers, it could be argued that in recent decades the hatchery program has accomplished its objective . . .”20 To critics, however, the program is a failure because it has not prevented the depletion of natural populations, and has probably hastened their decline.

Most dissatisfaction came, however, because a far higher percentage of the catch was now in the ocean, so that fewer fish were available for commercial harvest in the river. And upriver interests were also dissatisfied, because, as the Northwest Power Planning Council staff concluded in 1986, a “dramatic effect of mitigation activities for hydropower and for multipurpose developments has been to strengthen fish propagation in the lower Columbia River Basin without attempting to rebuild upriver runs.”21

By the 1990s, as we have seen, many factors had turned against the salmon, including bad weather, the rise of natural predators, and overfishing. Just as transportation was proclaimed a failure for failing to offset these factors, so too have hatcheries—as another technological solution—come under attack.

Conservation biologist Jim Lichatowich, echoing the simplistic attack on smolt transportation, sums up the politically-correct view of hatcheries: “The only way you can look at the situation in the Columbia River right now is to point out that the status quo hasn’t worked. Hatcheries have been a major part of the status quo for 120 years.”22 By that standard, water pollution laws, stream restoration efforts, and flow manipulation should all be tossed on the ash heap of failed recovery measures, as parts of a status quo that hasn’t worked.

Writer Joseph Cone aptly summarizes another environmentalist view of hatcheries:

“Faced with abundance, most people didn’t recognize a need for moderation. They didn’t recognize the inevitability of limits. When the abundance was clearly disappearing, their response was not to change their behavior. Instead, unequipped to struggle within themselves, they fought each other harder and looked outside themselves for a solution. Hatcheries became popular.”23

But most people don’t recognize “the inevitability of limits”. The “limits to growth” theorists have been proven wrong again and again, ever since Malthus invented the theory hundreds of years ago.

We can choose to abandon hatcheries, concentrate human populations in urban areas, and de-populate rural areas in the service of Nature and natural river restoration. But the choice won’t be made because of “limits”. It will be an aesthetic judgment that it is more important to protect remnant wild salmon stocks than to have lots of hatchery salmon.


Quoted in J. Cone, A Common Fate 114 (Mr. Wilcox was an agent of the U.S Fish Commission).

2 F. Cleaver, “Role of Hatcheries in the Management of Columbia River Salmon”, in E. Schwiebert (ed.), Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead 91, Spec. Pub. No. 10 (Am. Fish. Soc. 1977).

3 See, e.g., M. Goodman, “Preserving the Genetic Diversity of Salmonid Stocks: A Call for Federal Regulation of Hatchery Programs”, 20 Envt’l Law 111 (1990).

4 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “Interim Status Report”, Dec. 1996, at ES-3.

5 ISG, Return to the River 377.

6 Cited in C. Smith, Salmon Fishers of the Columbia 74.

7 ISG, Return to the River 387B (Figure 8.4).

8 Id. at 396A (Figure 8.11).

9 R. Neuberger, "The Great Salmon Mystery", Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 13, 1941.

10 House Rep. No. 2235, 75th Cong., 3d Sess. (Merchant Marine and Fisheries Comm.).

11 Anonymous, “Discussion Paper on Mitchell Act Hatcheries”, at 5 (1989).

12 Id.

13 E. Salo, “Special Report to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Two Reports Concerning Proposed Compensation for Losses of Fish Caused by Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite Locks and Dam Projects”, at 32 (USACE Walla Walla Dist. June 26, 1974) (20,700 adult fall chinook, 58,700 spring- and summer-run chinook and 55,100 steelhead.

14 Id. at 31.

15 “Compilation of Information on Salmon and Steelhead Losses in the Columbia River Basin”, at 223.

16 Summary of workshop “The Biological Basis for Listing Species or other Taxa of Salmonids Pursuant to the Endangered Species Act of 1973” (Portland, Oregon Dec. 7-8, 1978), at 70; excerpted in J. Cone & S. Ridlington, The Northwest Salmon Crisis 211.

17 E.g., NRC, Upstream at 41 (Prepub. ed.).

18 ISG, Return to the River 141.

19 From Table 1, “Status Report: Columbia River Fish Runs and Fisheries, 1938-95”, at 2-3 (WDFW/ODFW Aug. 1996).

20 ISG, Return to the River 396.

21 “Compilation of Information on Salmon and Steelhead Losses in the Columbia River Basin”

22 Quoted in The Oregonian, editorial page, Jan. 7, 1997.

23 J. Cone, A Common Fate 116.

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