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Hatcheries flow on despite the evidence they harm salmon recovery

Fish eggs at the Marblemount hatchery (2013) Credit: Brian Dewey/Flickr

Second of two parts (Part 1: Fish hatcheries: A 19th century fix that won’t die)

So, why are hatcheries still an issue? Because, decades after they gained notoriety as one of the factors that threaten salmon recovery,  people still catch salmon for fun and profit, and for most of them, catching a hatchery fish is just as much fun and just as profitable as catching one that didn’t start life in a concrete tank. Besides, to the uninformed eye, there’s not much difference.

Hatcheries, says Wild Fish Conservancy Executive Director Kurt Beardslee, are still the place “where you take kids to go see salmon.”

“Restoration hatcheries,” which raise eggs of salmon populations on the very brink of extinction, are a somewhat different story, arguably more aimed at environmental action than providing a fishing resource. They have been used to, among other things, increase the runs of sockeye returning to Idaho’s Redfish Lake — the first Northwestern salmon population listed under the ESA — from just one fish to 1,500. This has been hailed as a great success story .

“The most charitable assessment to be made at this time is that the conservation hatchery program appears to have contributed to a recent significant boost of numbers of returning adults and spawners in the wild,” says Wild Fish Conservancy aquatic ecologist Nick Gayeski. “The critical issue is whether or not this is sustainable in the absence of hatchery releases.”

If not, he says, “we will have simply established another augmentation hatchery program in the Columbia Basin.”

Even if one doesn’t look beneath the surface of the Redfish Lake success story, conservation hatcheries remain the exception. The rule is a hatchery geared to producing fish for constituents to catch.

Politically correct Northwesterners make a point of buying — and politically correct Northwest markets make a point of selling — “wild” salmon, but what does that really mean? What is a wild salmon?

As used in commerce, it is basically a marketing term, to be taken with a grain of salt. If you see “wild greens” or “wild mushrooms” on a menu, do you really assume that they’ve been gathered by a forager in muddy boots? Of course not. If you buy a “wild” salmon, it probably has been taken by someone in boots that are wet, if not muddy. But in the marketplace — although not in the state of Washington’s fishing reglations — “wild” merely means not farmed. It doesn’t mean naturally spawned.

Commercial fishers and their allies of convenience have done a good job of turning many Northwest consumers against farmed salmon — one imagines Stone Age hunter-gatherers mounting a similar campaign against the real but irrelevant downsides of agriculture. But the nation as a whole eats a lot more farmed than net- or line-caught salmon, saving a great deal of money in the process. There are legitimate concerns about farmed salmon spreading disease and genes among nearby wild stocks in the Pacific Northwest, but much of the farmed salmon now on the market comes from Chile, which has no native stocks. The big — though unacknowledged — reason why farmed salmon have become pisces non gratae, really, is price; cheap salmon undercuts the profits of commercial fishers all along the West Coast. Conservation groups want to make political alliances with commercial fishers and tribes, so they go along.

No one has a short-term vested economic interest in truly wild fish. There is no commercial advantage in marketing genuinely “wild” salmon as opposed to hatchery-raised salmon, so no one does it.

Long-term, though, hatcheries produce diminishing returns, and they undercut the genetic diversity that anadromous fish will ultimately need to survive in a changing world.

The hatchery fish also interfere with surviving populations of threatened or endangered fish, making recovery of those populations more problematic even in the relatively short run.

The scientific evidence suggests that planting hatchery-raised steelhead — or salmon of any other species — interferes not only with the native steelhead but also with salmon of other species.

In evaluating the effects of hatchery releases, Beardslee says, agencies tend to look narrowly at, “If you plant a chinook, are they harming other chinook?” But they should be taking a broader view of a river’s ecosystem: “We need to look at ‘if you plant a steelhead in the basin, are they harming your chinook?’ Because they are.”

However, hatcheries still benefit from a lot of capital investment, a lot of institutional inertia and a lot of government subsidy. How much subsidy? “It is a subsidy beyond any agricultural subsidy out there,” Beardslee argues. And you don’t have to be an advocate to know the costs are high.

“Economists hired by the Northwest Power Planning Council say the least-costly hatchery fish is one fall chinook that shows up back at the Spring Creek National Hatchery on the Washington side of the Columbia River,” the old Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorialized in 2002. “It’s only $64.35 per fish.”

“Most expensive,” the paper said, “is a sockeye that makes its way back to the Eagle Hatchery near Boise; it costs $7,437.50 to bring each one of those home. The Nez Pierce Indian Tribe, which is experimenting with more natural salmon rearing, brings each chinook home to Idaho for $4,646.17. These are not wild fish, mind: they’re the man-made kind.” (For current dollars, you’d have to increase those numbers by roughly one-third.)

And yet … the old system flourishes. “They have so much invested in hatcheries being the solution,” Beardslee says. “Even to shut down a quarter of them would be a giant sign of failure.”

The group of federal fisheries scientists that recommended against releasing Chambers Creek steelhead into the Elwha wrote, “Experience with fish hatchery programs indicates that, once begun, hatchery programs can be difficult to stop, even if there is compelling biological evidence regarding their ineffectiveness or their adverse impacts on natural populations.”

Why — other than institutional inertia and political self-interest — does government cling so doggedly to a 19th-century technological fix? “You could go back to Francis Bacon and his idea that we should control and exploit nature,” suggests fishery biologist Jim Lichatowich, the author of Salmon Without Rivers.

“The U.S. Fish Commission in the 1880s certainly saw hatcheries as a means of controlling salmon production,” Lichatowich explains. And why not? “There is this deep-seated belief that we can and should control nature because we can improve upon it.”

“Those ideas are part of what George Lakoff [a UC Berkeley linguist who has written Don’t Think of an Elephant and other books] calls our ‘deep frame,’ ” Lichatowich argues. “And as Lakoff says, anything that conflicts with our deep frames will be ignored. In spite of all the scientific evidence to the contrary, I still, as recently as a year ago, have heard hatchery advocates say there is no evidence that hatcheries have failed or that they cause problems for wild fish. It is really hard to kill some myths.”

And, he explains, hatchery myths turn out to be convenient: “It’s much easier to raise fish in hatcheries and regulate harvest and ignore as much as possible the messy ecological relationships that sustain wild salmon. Focusing on hatcheries and harvest is about as comfortable a niche as any administrator of a fish and wildlife agency can hope to find today.”

Hatcheries also appeal to politicians looking for ways to keep everyone happy. If what may work isn’t politically palatable, it’s tempting to invest heavily in something that probably won’t.

“Even assuming that society decides that ‘saving’ salmon is a good thing and it ought to be accomplished, there is disagreement over what the restoration objective ought to be,” the EPA’s Robert Lackey has written. “For example, should the target be simply to save a species, an evolutionarily significant unit, or a stock from extinction? Such a policy objective . . . can be achieved with relatively low run sizes, but such runs would not be at levels that would permit sustainable fishing. Is restoration of wild salmon to levels too small to permit fishing acceptable?”

Evidently not; “fishable” salmon runs have been virtually everyone’s stated objective. But how big do those runs have to be? And will the fish that compose them be truly wild? “[D]oes society demand that salmon runs be comprised entirely of wild fish?” Lackey asks. “If restoration is constrained to wild fish, it becomes much more challenging and would be especially difficult to produce enough fish to support significant fishing. If hatchery fish are used, and fishing is permitted, there will continue to be adverse effects on wild salmon, but what level of adverse effect is acceptable to society? . . . [T]here is no inherently scientifically correct approach to restoration, but rather a suite of alternatives with ‘best’ largely being a function of which vision of the restoration objective one accepts.”

“That’s true,” Beardslee says. “As a society we’re going to need to make choices. I just want us to make informed choices.”

Defining the “best” alternative is also a function of how much we are willing to spend or forego in order to save the fish. Saving and restoring wild salmon populations is a social and political issue, rather than a scientific one. “Now,” Lackey reminds us, “we need to bring some annoying reality to this discussion. The human population of the Pacific Northwest is growing at an annual rate comparable to those in some third-world countries. For example, applying middle-of-the-road (from my perspective) annual growth rates of the current human population in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia (currently 15 million in total), there will be a population of 60-80 million people by 2100. Given such a probable human population level, you may ask whether society is being delusional about the chances of the Endangered Species Act, or anything else, doing much to save wild salmon.”

Maybe. But maybe without saving the wild gene pool, salmon in general will be doomed. Higher average temperatures will not be good for cold-water fish. More winter flooding will not be good for fish eggs buried in gravel. Not surprisingly, Nathan Mantua of the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group and colleagues have concluded, “The combined effects of warming stream temperatures and altered streamflows will very likely reduce the reproductive success for many salmon populations in Washington watersheds.”

Genetic diversity looks like the best hope of enabling species to deal with new conditions. “Adaptive capacity may be among the most important issues facing Washington’s salmonids,” Mantua and his colleagues write.

Diversity, however, is something hatchery salmon don’t offer. For the long term, Beardslee says, “The best thing you can do to have fish around is to have wild fish, because they have the most diversity.”

And the future starts now. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently observed, “changes in climate have [already] caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans.” The implications for salmon are clear. “We call it ‘long-term,’ but we’re seeing effects now,” Beardslee says.

On any time scale, Beardslee says, “It seems like the public never says, ‘Did we get what we were promised?'” But, he says, as long as the public hears little about what science says, there’s not much reason for the public to ask that question.

Beardslee suggests, “We have failed to keep the public abreast of what we know, and what the science is telling us.”

“We’re left,” he adds, “with this incredible distance between what the public believes and what the scientific literature says. … We’ve got to close that gap.”

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