Hatcheries: Time for a Policy Adjustment

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February 1, 2022

Hatcheries: Time for a Policy Adjustment

it’s time for anglers to demand a policy that seeks abundance, protects wild fish to the degree possible, while providing fisheries that are as consistent as possible. by Jack Smith

I often hear people, especially fellow anglers, ask how or why our fisheries are in the shape we currently find them and why are there such discrepancies between how Washington and Oregon state agencies, (ODFW and WDFW), view and manage hatchery fish compared to how tribal managers and independent biologists manage the same fish where they have jurisdiction. They all have access to the same science and all manage the same salmon and steelhead. Both tribal and agency hatcheries are capable of using the same technology and techniques; however the interpretation or application of the science must explain the difference in research, management, operational styles and frankly results.

While both state and tribal managers have access to the same research there are definitely differences in how managers interpret that science. Science relies on demonstrable facts to guide verifiable results which can be replicated. Fisheries science tends to overuse modeling which is heavily affected by assumptions. These assumptions can be affected by researcher bias severely altering results especially in an academic setting where the goal is to publish papers and impress colleagues. When academic researchers indicate that hatchery fish are the reason wild stocks are suppressed, or one of the leading causes, they are showing a bias and policy preference. The effect hatchery fish have on wild productivity is rarely quantified and usually blown out of proportion. If hatchery fish, which have been around for over 100 years, were anywhere near as bad for natural origin spawners as we are led to believe, there would be no “wild” fish.

Today, the ODFW and WDFW manage for whatever remnant runs of wild fish current damaged habitat can provide. They use hatchery fish to provide just enough opportunity to sell licenses or boost the wild population to a self-sustaining level. They then, as in the case of the Sandy River spring chinook, reduce hatchery numbers to protect the “wild” fish from the hatchery fish that created them. The focus of current upper level agency management, rather than being on abundance or robust fisheries, is managing the resource for self-supporting remnant runs of “wild” fish, and whatever fishery current and future habitat can provide. This management direction results in reduced hatchery production and management of that production so that it returns to a hatchery or a trap as quickly as possible so as not to interact with “wild” fish.  The result of this focus is poor fisheries, intermittent seasons and emergency closures.

Unfortunately many folks are swept up in the promise of historical numbers of wild fish providing consistent and historical fisheries. Only problem is, it’s a false promise.

Since hatchery fish were not the problem and removing them, absent other efforts, has not resulted in increased wild fish numbers would we not be better off concentrating our efforts, to the degree possible, on the problems that caused decline?

Efforts to restore coho in the Snake River basin have been successful thanks to the Nez Perce tribe and its hatcheries.

Efforts to restore coho in the Snake River basin have been successful thanks to the Nez Perce tribe and its hatcheries.

The only way to increase carrying capacity above current levels would be to eliminate that portion of the human foot print on habitat that has caused decline. Unfortunately some of that imprint is irreversible. In many instances it would be impossible to “fix” river habitat to a level that would provide the complete in-stream habitat needed by wild fish to provide abundance. The fact is there are simply too many humans living or working in salmon habitat with more on the way. Unfortunately, many if not most, estuaries have had cities built on them. In order to return these estuaries to fully functioning habitat we would have to kick out all the humans, return lower rivers to braids full of cover, food and somehow lower water temperatures. If we are not going to fix these things we will never have habitat that is fully “fixed.” Which means if we are to have abundant fisheries, hatcheries will need to be a part of our future.

Contrast the agency perspective with tribal managers and many tribal and non-tribal independent biologists that do not agree with the state agencies. The tribal and independent biologist believe in managing for abundance until such a time that our damaged habitat has, or can be, recovered and is able to provide abundance. Exactly what hatchery fish were intended to accomplish.

With this in mind, many of the Native American tribes in the Columbia River Basin have built an entire coho run above Bonneville Dam from extinction to abundance.    Part of that return can be attributed to the Nez Perce Tribe’s monumental work to reintroduce coho to the Clearwater Basin in the late 1990s after they were declared extinct in 1985, and recently in the Lostine River in 2017. The Nez Perce started by releasing hatchery fish derived from the lower Columbia into an upper Columbia watershed. Then, as these fish retuned they began using fish that had successfully returned for broodstock. As returning fish started spawning in the wild they used those returning fish for broodstock building a run which grew to a point that just resulted in record returns of coho to the upper Columbia. At last count, 243,603 adult coho and 19,734 jacks passed over Bonneville Dam in 2021. There are several examples of where the tribes have built runs from little or nothing using hatchery fish to start and then continued supplementation to boost population numbers.

Independent biologists, who work either in their own consulting business or for private companies, have also had success increasing abundance. It is important to note that, like the tribes, these biologists are not subject to the politics that are inherent with the state agencies.

Take, for example, Portland General Electric biologists on Oregon’s Clackamas River. Here, they have successfully improved passage at North Fork Reservoir increasing survival rates through the bypass pipeline to around 99% by reducing the time it takes juvenile coho to pass the dams from as many as 12 days down to only two and a half hours. In addition to this they had allowed early-arriving hatchery fish to pass the dam for the first time and spawn in the upper Clackamas. These, and other passage improvements, resulted in 9,000 early-arriving coho passing North Fork Dam by Nov. 9, 2021. This was the highest total recorded since the dam was built and collection was started in 1958. It is important to note that Clackamas River wild coho are a late-arriving strain that returns after that Nov. 9 date.

It must be made clear that hatchery fish are not the cause of wild fish decline. In fact they aren’t likely anywhere near the top of the list of manmade problems. Let’s not forget that hatchery fish have been here for over a century and were introduced to replace the astronomical number of wild fish that had been eliminated by the negative effect humans have had on salmon habitat. Peer-reviewed science tells us if the habitat is at carrying capacity, then that capacity will be filled by the fittest of the population and the rest, hatchery or wild, will be excess available for fisheries or to supply much needed stream nutrients which would increase capacity. So how much “domestication” is imparted in hatchery fish in a small amount of time? Is this “domestication” a permanent irreversible trait?  If it were permanent coho would not exist above the falls on the Willamette, nor would they exist above Bonneville Dam on the Columbia. The early component above North Fork Dam on the Clackamas, and the populations listed above, are all the product of letting hatchery fish spawn in the wild. All of these populations were created by hatchery broodstock from other regions which were allowed to spawn in the wild, a complete rebuttal of what wild fish zealots, and some scientists would have you believe.

As anglers we need to realize that most researchers have an academic background in science, in the case of our interests’ fisheries science. It is important for us to also remember that science’s role is to advise policy as opposed to using science to advocate for their personal policy preference. Dr. Robert Lackey in his article titled “Is science biased toward natural” states: “When performed appropriately and without policy bias, science has much to offer society, decision makers and individual citizens.  The scientific enterprise also has much to lose by doing otherwise. Our personal bias for natural, no matter how understandable in its origin, has no place in the scientific enterprise.” (Northwest Science. 83(3): 277-279).

You can debate all you want how science is interpreted but at some point there needs to be a demonstration of positive response from the path some have led us down. If abundance is the goal, and it should be, it could be argued that currently that success story does not exist.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see wide open coho fisheries where abundance is a byproduct of management change. I remember when every port on the West Coast, from the Columbia to the California border, was a Buoy 10-type fishery from June through October. How great would it be if younger anglers could experience the consistent fisheries of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and before? Fisheries where seasons were set and played out without quotas, emergency closures or any of the micromanagement that anglers suffer today.

The salient point here is it was hatchery fish and the consistency they provide that made the good old days good. These coastal Coho bonanza seasons were fueled by the stocking of 7 million Coho smolts from south of the Columbia River to the California border. Sadly, that number has been reduced to 220,000 which explains the ridiculous clip rate experienced by ocean anglers out of coastal ports currently.

I would argue that the loss of that ocean coho fishery occurred because managers and scientists preferred the policy path they chose. They didn’t and shouldn’t have considered all the effects the policy would have on rural coastal communities and sportsmen from around the world. They should have given an accurate assessment of the science and let society decide if the juice was worth the squeeze. We very likely would have ended up in a better place had we clipped the hatchery coho ending the wild fish slaughter that was occurring in the mixed stock ocean fishery and completed all the habitat improvements that occurred since then. We would have arrived at that point without the huge economic losses that occurred by closing or restricting the fishery. Let’s let that sink in!

Since the 1970s we have experimented with current agency management practices and absent all results it should be time for anglers to demand we adopt a policy that seeks abundance, protects wild fish to the degree possible, while providing fisheries that are as consistent as possible.  ssj

Jack Smith is a member of the Oregon Hatchery Research Center review board, president of Oregon Coastal Conservation Association and a lifelong Oregon resident.

Spawning Coho Salmon

Populations of “wild” fish are the product of letting hatchery fish spawn in the wild.

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