Fish hatcheries: A 19th century fix that won't die

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Fly fishing in the Skykomish River, where some of the fish come from hatcheries.

If you found yourself recently in Marblemount, say, or North Bend, it might have been a good idea to visit the cold waters of the Cascade River or Tokul Creek and wave goodbye to the early winter run of Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead struggling upstream to the concrete tanks in which they were spawned. This winter's run, a smaller batch next winter, and poof!

Except for those released from a hatchery on the Skykomish River, near Monroe, we may have seen the last of those Chambers Creek fish. Or not.

The state certainly hopes not, and is working to keep the Chambers Creek fish around, although it is — simultaneously and perhaps schizophrenically — getting ready to air a proposal for keeping all hatchery steelhead out of some Puget Sound rivers.

And last Thursday, the federal government made a move that may enable the state to plant at least some Chambers Creek fish outside the Skykomish this year.

The Chambers Creek fish, raised originally in a private hatchery just south of Tacoma — not far from the current sites of Charles Wright Academy and the Chambers Bay golf course on which this year's U.S. Open will be played — have been released for decades into the Nooksack, Stillaguamish, Skagit, Snohomish, Duwamish/Green and Dungeness river systems.

Under a legal settlement with Wild Fish Conservancy last spring, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife agreed not to release them into any Puget Sound river, except the Skykomish, until the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approves hatchery its management plans for the fish. The WDFW also agreed not to release any of the Chambers Creek fish into the Skagit River system during a 12-year study period. The Conservancy has agreed not to sue again for two-and-a-half years or until NOAA approves Fish and Wildlife's proposed management plans (known as hatchery genetic management plans or HGMPs), whichever comes first.

The state had planned to release 900,000 of the fish last spring; under the settlement, it released only 180,000.

The hatchery status quo has been at least jiggled if not totally upset. And not everyone is pleased. State Sens. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, and Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds, sponsored a bill that would penalize Wild Fish Conservancy for challenging that status quo. The bill would prohibit the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board from awarding funds for any project "if the project sponsor has, within ten calendar years . . . brought any legal action . . . against the state relating to hatchery facility operations." The bill didn't reach the Senate floor, but presumably the point was made.

Puget Sound chinook were listed as a threatened species in 1999, Puget Sound steelhead in 2007. The Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to "take" — that is to kill, capture, harm, harass or otherwise impede the recovery of — a listed species. Release of hatchery fish that affect wild populations can qualify as taking, but the state can release hatchery fish anyway if NOAA approves its plan for each hatchery. The state and the treaty tribes had attached HGMPs to a proposed resource management plan that they submitted — in 2004. NOAA had never approved them. Nor had the agency completed the environmental impact statement (EIS) it had announced in 2004. The state now has submitted new plans.

This is almost self-parody, isn't it? The federal government takes more than 10 years to review state plans. When this process started, George W. Bush was still serving his first term in the White House, Greg Nickels his first term as mayor of Seattle and Gary Locke his second term as governor of Washington state. One might have reasonably expected a decision before this. One would, of course, have been wrong. And in jumping the gun by acting on that expectation one would, of course, have been deliberately violating federal law.

The state has not denied that it had released and planned to continue releasing hatchery fish without the required federal approval. It has not apologized, either. When WDFW announced the settlement, the agency's director, Phil Anderson, said that "without [federal] certification that our hatchery programs comply with the Endangered Species Act, we remain at risk of litigation. We are working hard to complete that process.”

Why, one might ask, does a state agency, and an untold number of state officials, feel it's OK — until confronted by the facts in federal court — to brazenly violate federal law over an entire decade? Good question.

But the state may not have to wait much longer.  On Thursday, NOAA's Natonal Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that after 11 years, it would abandon the EIS. Instead, it issued a draft environmental assessment for releasing Chambers Creek steelhead  into the Nooksack, Dungeness and Stillaguamish watersheds. NMFS was responding to a proposal from WDFW and five treaty tribes.  An environmental assessment sets a much lower bar than an eis.  The comment period for this one closes April 27.  Those little hatchery fish could be in the rivers before the equinox.

Before this latest twist, the Chambers Creek settlement represented the "most significant effort of its kind on the West Coast," Wild Fish Conservancy proclaimed.

"What set our case apart from others," Wild Fish Conservancy executive director Kurt Beardslee says, "was the size and scope of it. Our settlement wasn’t just looking at the harm caused by one hatchery to one river; it addressed all winter steelhead releases across a vast geographic landscape."

Beardslee figures that "the most significant part of the settlement was the 12-year moratorium of Chambers Creek steelhead plantings in the Skagit river system." Still, he says, "The agreement from WDFW to not resume planting until NOAA approves HGMPs was giant." The key, he says, should be the scientific evidence NOAA will need to before approving any of the management plans.  "We believe this evidence [should make it] difficult for NOAA to approve the existing HGMPs without requiring modifications, such as reductions or complete eliminations of some programs."

Nevertheless, Beardslee has been around such issues long enough to know that the science may look clear to him but not to the feds. He concedes that only "time will tell."

In its legal case, Wild Fish Conservancy explained its concerns with the hatchery fish: "Chambers Creek steelhead are highly-domesticated due to decades of artificial production and now have genetically heritable life history traits that contrast significantly with most populations within the Puget Sound steelhead. Take through genetic introgression occurs when Chambers Creek steelhead are allowed to spawn in the wild and thereby pass their maladaptive genes to the wild populations."

The group also argued that the state's hatchery programs hurt the threatened species in a variety of ways, including by attracting predators that prey on the surviving wild chinook and steelhead.

Other people have reached similar conclusions. When NOAA listed Puget Sound steelhead as threatened, it noted that "efforts by hatchery managers to prevent natural spawning by Chambers Creek winter-run ... hatchery fish were unlikely to be completely effective, with potentially adverse consequences. The [biological review team] concluded that opportunities for genetic and ecological interactions between hatchery and wild steelhead in Puget Sound were substantial, with significant potential to reduce natural productivity."

That seems to be the case. Eric Beamer of the Skagit River System Cooperative has concluded on the basis of federally-funded research that the release of hatchery steelhead "may be negatively impacting the Skagit wild steelhead population. This conclusion is based on potential competition for food and space among hatchery and wild juveniles, and evidence demonstrating gene flow between hatchery and wild populations."

One might have thought, erroneously, that by the second decade of the 21st century, hatcheries would be on their way out. Decades ago, salmon advocates and detached scientists identified hatcheries as one of the "4Hs" — harvest, hydro, habitat loss and hatcheries — threatening the recovery and even survival of many wild salmon and steelhead populations.

For instance, the authors of Upstream, published by the National Research Council, explained in 1996 that hatcheries "have resulted (among other effects) in reduced genetic diversity within and between salmon populations, increased the effect of mixed-population fisheries on depleted natural populations, altered behavior of fish, caused ecological problems by eliminating the nutritive contributions of carcasses of spawning salmon from streams, and probably displaced the remnants of wild runs."

Nevertheless, Northwestern hatcheries are still very much in business. The state of Washington operates some 80 of them.

Government fishery agencies "just immediately brought [hatcheries] right over to the solution [side], without ever explaining how it happened," says Beardslee. "They jumped this chasm, and nobody asks any questions about it."

Hatcheries have retained their 19th-century aura of a technological fix that enables us to have our cake and eat it, too. They have always been means of atoning for the damage caused by one or more of the other H's. This has been true ever since Americans started building them in the late 19th century. (Before the start of World War One, a hatchery was built to compensate for the destruction of salmon runs by the original Elwha River dam. As Bruce Brown describes in his classic Mountain in the Clouds, that was basically a scam. But it enabled the developer and the state to ignore the Washington law against blocking a salmon stream.)

In the 21st century, hatcheries offer a way to avoid significantly changing our hydro system, our agricultural water diversions, our use of oil-leaking automobiles and our development of urban sprawl — and still produce enough fish to satisfy commercial fishers, sport fishers and tribes.

The hatcheries have never worked. This may be an arguable proposition, but it is not a new one. In 1917, John N. Cobb, who two years later became the first head of the University of Washington 's college of fisheries, wrote, "In some sections an almost idolatrous faith in the efficacy of artificial culture of fish for replenishing the ravages of man and animals is manifested, and nothing has done more harm than the prevalence of such an idea."

In what might be evidence of modern acceptance of those longstanding concerns, the WDFW last year, as part of a 2008 steelhead management plan, designated three tributaries of the lower Columbia "wild steelhead gene banks" — i.e., made them off-limits for releasing hatchery fish. It had already established a gene bank on the Olympic Peninsula's Sol Duc River. The lower Columbia plan calls for capping the gene flow from hatchery to wild populations at 2 percent.

That represents a huge change for the WDFW, says Jim Scott, who heads the agency's fish program. There's "a night-and-day difference" between the department's approach today and its practices 10 or 15 years ago, Scott says. Then, he sadi, "We were Johnny Appleseed-ing steelhead through watersheds. That was not the thing to do."

Under that new approach, a gene bank may be coming soon to a river near you. The department expects to establish its first Puget Sound gene banks this year. Based on his experience with the lower Columbia, Scott knows the proposal will be controversial. The process, he says, "probably won't be a lot of fun."

As a result of the Chambers Creek settlement, Wild Fish Conservancy aquatic ecologist Nick Gayeski thinks that the Skagit will end up becoming the first wild gene bank in Puget Sound. "However," Gayeski says, "WDFW is also indicating that it is considering starting a local-broodstock hatchery on the Skagit. Given the large size of the basin and the relative health of the wild steelhead population in the Skagit there is no sound conservation argument for such a hatchery."

Back in 2010, when Chambers Creek fish were due to be released from the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe's hatchery into the newly restored Elwha River, three scientists from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center had warned the tribe that the Chambers Creek steelhead was "a particularly unsuitable candidate for use in the Elwha River Basin." They explained, "Continued use of Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead in the Elwha River would increase the risk of loss of genetic variation and loss of fitness in native steelhead."

Such objections notwithstanding, the hatchery industry seems in no imminent danger of collapse.

Still, it has been facing some closer scrutiny. Last January, a federal district court ruled that NMFS had violated environmental law when it approved the state of Oregon's hatchery operations on the Sandy River, which flows into the Columbia at Troutdale. The state had been releasing a million hatchery fish a year into a river in which wild populations had dwindled to as few as 1,000 steelhead and coho and 1,300 spring Chinook.

The judge observed that NMFS “treats the success of the [hatchery] programs as a given, an issue called into doubt by [the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's] miserable track record of containing stray rates" — the rates at which hatchery fish wind up where they don't belong.

Many people still take the success of hatchery programs as a given. Not far up the Columbia from the Sandy's mouth, the federal hatchery at the Bonneville Dam remains a tourist attraction. Odds are, most of the tourists who stop there don't even realize there's an issue.

Check back Tuesday, March 31st for Part 2: What keeps hatcheries going?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.