Ian Courter’s Ground Breaking Study

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Ian Courter’s Ground Breaking Study

New Study Shows Hatchery Summer Steelhead Did Not Negatively Impact Wild Winter Steelhead in the Clackamas River

By Pat Hoglund, SSJ Editor

For the better part of 20 years hatchery practices have been under the proverbial microscope where anglers, scientists, and policy decision makers have differing opinions on how to best manage salmon and steelhead runs throughout the West. Hatchery and wild fish have been, and continue to be, at the heart of the discussion. 

What has evolved over time is a hotly debated topic that has pitted wild fish advocates against anglers who want to see more hatchery fish return to rivers and more fishing opportunity. Often fueled by emotion, the argument is one where the two camps—pro hatchery versus pro wild—make their case with information that is either skewed, partially correct, or flat out wrong. These discussions are based upon studies that sometimes don’t fully explain the process, are outdated or where only a certain set of facts is used to bolster a position. It has been a confusing issue that most people don’t fully understand, and that includes the people who are making the decisions on whether or not hatchery salmon and steelhead practices should continue. 

That is until recently.

GROUND BREAKING STUDY

In December of 2018, Ian Courter, a scientist at Mount Hood Environmental, released a ground breaking study that shows that hatchery steelhead did not have a negative effect on wild winter steelhead in Oregon’s Clackamas River. Not only does this fly in the face of what many anglers, conservationist and biologists previously thought, but it moves the needle toward changing the mindset that hatchery fish are bad for wild fish. 

“In simple terms, we evaluated the influence of adult summer steelhead abundance on winter steelhead productivity,” said Courter. 

The hypothesis Courter tested was matter of fact: Did hatchery summer steelhead abundance negatively affect winter steelhead production? And the answer is counter to what many previously thought to be true.

“Summer steelhead hatchery fish abundance did not show up as a negative factor in our analysis,” said Courter. “We were unable to quantify a negative effect of hatchery summer steelhead, which is a pretty big deal in this case because of the number of summer steelhead that were being released.”

I recently met with Courter at his office, located in the foothills of Mount Hood in Sandy, Oregon. We discussed the study itself, his findings, the methodology and the potential ramifications his study could have on future hatchery practices. Courter is quick to point out that he comes at this study purely as a scientist, not an angler, and he has no dog in the fight on the hatchery versus wild debate. Despite that he knows that his study, which after a lengthy peer review process was recently published in “Transactions of the American Fisheries Society”, has the potential to upset status quo.

Ian Courter, a scientist at Mount Hood Environmental, recently released a peer-reviewed study showing that hatchery steelhead did not have a negative effect on wild winter steelhead in Oregon’s Clackamas River.

Courter’s study analyzed data from the Clackamas River Basin where he and Garth Wyatt from Portland General Electric used 59 years of data collected at the North Fork Dam. Located on the upper Clackamas, the dam has a fish collection facility where hatchery and wild fish have been counted dating back to 1958. It provided what Courter calls “empirical data.” 

“I think that’s why this analysis is so important. It’s great data, it’s a perfect opportunity to directly quantify impacts of hatchery fish,” he said. “If you survey the peer review literature, you’re going to have a tough time finding examples of clear demonstrations where hatchery fish effects were quantified on a population scale. You’ll see a whole bunch of literature that explains theoretical mechanisms for hatchery fish effects. And differences between hatchery and wild fish. What you will not find is an abundance of analyses like the one we did because it’s really difficult. You need really good fish population census data. Another possible explanation for why we don’t see an abundance of this kind of work in the literature is because if hatchery fish effects are small relative to other factors, exceptional long term datasets are needed to estimate that effect.”

Courter and Wyatt used annual adult steelhead counts and age data from PGE’s database from the North Fork Dam collection and sorting facility from 1958 to 2017. To ensure accuracy, they cross-referenced electronic records against archived data collection sheets. Adult winter steelhead counts were also obtained from three neighboring rivers: the Sandy, Willamette and Hood rivers, all of which maintain counts at different fish passage sites. Those datasets were included in the study to use as reference populations to determine whether trends in upper Clackamas winter steelhead spawner abundance diverged from trends observed in other nearby basins. They also took into account different strains of fish, and harvest estimates. 

“I’m confident that it’s a good piece of science,” said Courter. “I’m not confident that someone won’t come along and add to that explanation. We put our best foot forward and if someone else comes along and provides a differing perspective on it, that’s the point. Which is exactly what we did.”

WHAT WAS, IS NOW GONE

The Clackamas River empties into the Willamette River near the town of Oregon City. For years it provided a thriving winter and summer steelhead fishery for countless anglers from the Portland-Metro area.  Hatchery summer steelhead were first released into the Clackamas in 1970 and the first adults returned in 1972. Many of those were released into the upper river, above North Fork Dam. By 1975 a robust summer steelhead fishery emerged and was one of the top fisheries in the state. To give an example, in 1984 over 11,000 hatchery summer steelhead returned to the upper river. Most all of those were hatchery steelhead reared at both the federally operated Eagle Creek National Fish Hatchery (USFWS) and the state run Clackamas Hatchery (ODFW) near the town of Estacada. 

In 1999 the upper Clackamas Basin was designated a “wild fish sanctuary” and releasing hatchery fish above the dam stopped. In effect, it killed what was once a summer steelhead fishery that attracted anglers from across the state. 

Forrest Foxworthy is a fishing guide who grew up fishing the Clackamas River. He remembers fishing the upper river in high school. Today, he still guides on the river. 

“You had fishing in the upper Clackamas that started in May and went through November. The opportunities were endless,” he said. “It wasn’t uncommon for two or three of us to hook 15, 18 fish in a half day. There were 40 or 50 miles of accessible water, and every run had steelhead in it. Sometimes 20 fish in a run. And there was a car in every turnout. It was a thriving fishery.”

Today, both winter and summer hatchery steelhead are released below the dam and those fish come from the ODFW’s Clackamas Hatchery. According to Dan Straw, hatchery manager, 260,000 winter steelhead smolts and 175,000 summer steelhead smolts are released into the lower Clackamas River. 

What’s notable is that the federally operated Eagle Creek hatchery completely stopped releasing hatchery steelhead smolts into the river in 1999. From 1978 to 1997 the average number of hatchery steelhead planted upstream of North Fork Dam was 155,034. 

According to PGE, which monitors fish passage, the average hatchery summer steelhead run in the upper Clackamas is 489; and the average wild winter steelhead run is 1,320 and 364 hatchery winter steelhead return annually. To say there’s a marked drop off is an understatement. 

“We’re talking about an angling opportunity less than an hour from the Portland-Metro area that provided so much opportunity. It’s a shame that it all got taken away,” said Foxworthy. 

Using a hands-free fish sorting facility designed by Garth Wyatt, PGE is able to accurately count and sort wild fish and hatchery fish.

WHAT WENT AWRY?

So what changed? It begins with the Endangered Species Act, which was amended numerous times since it was enacted in 1973. Many of the amendments called for stricter rules when governing hatchery practices. It was in the early 1990s when hatchery practices started to be mandated to protect wild stocks of salmon and steelhead. About that time 28 genetically distinct Pacific salmon and steelhead stocks were scrutinized by the federal government. And with it came increased scientific debate about the impacts of hatchery mitigation. Numerous studies were conducted that altered the course of hatcheries. One in particular was a study by Kathryn Kostow, who was employed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Her study, in effect, showed that hatchery fish have a negative impact on wild fish. She completed her study in 2006. And since that time, the Kostow study has been cited and used as a guide to change hatchery practices in the Pacific Northwest. 

“If you look at any study that comes to the conclusion that hatchery fish are bad for wild fish, the vast majority of them cite the Kathryn Kostow study, and that study appears to be in question,” said Jack Smith, president of Oregon Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) Oregon and a member of the Oregon Hatchery Research Center Review Board. 

When asked, Courter said he was familiar with the controversy surrounding the Kostow study.

“I was aware of the previous work that had been done by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife on the same data set,” said Courter. “There was controversy around that paper and questions about the accuracy of the author’s conclusions, especially after seeing how things played out after it was published.”

The Kostow study concluded “that large releases of hatchery smolts also contributed to the decrease in wild adult productivity.”

According to PGE, which publishes fish counts, wild winter steelhead counts are trending favorably. Using a hands-free fish sorting facility designed by Wyatt, PGE is able to accurately count and sort wild fish and hatchery fish. From 2013 to 2017 the average number of wild winter steelhead that passed over North Fork Dam was 1,320. 

Interestingly, when Courter asked Kostow to share her data, for use in his study, she declined. 

“In order to check the validity of science you need to be able plug in the same data and check the results. If you can’t replicate the science, it should raise questions,” said Smith. 

One of the fundamental flaws of the Kostow study is she did not take into account other important factors that may have caused a reduction in winter steelhead in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, ocean productivity was not addressed, which may explain the reduction in wild fish that Kostow mistakenly attributed to hatchery fish.

It should also be noted that a majority of the peer-reviewed manuscripts conclude a positive or no quantifiable effect of hatchery-origin fish on natural origin salmon and steelhead abundance.

As a result of the Federal Regulatory Commission relicensing process, PGE built, replaced or modified most of the upstream and downstream migrant fish facilities to improve fish passage conditions between 2006 and 2015. Fish passage infrastructure, water flow, and temperature conditions present within the North Fork Dam fish ladder changed considerably. In addition, upgrades were made to fish collection processes, and a spillway exclusion net was added allowing more downstream migrants to either be captured or bypass the hydro system. Unlike the removal of hatchery fish, early indications suggest these passage improvements have resulted in significant increases in wild fish returns to the upper Clackamas Basin. 

Courter’s study points out the importance of empirical data and the need to monitor policy decisions for effectiveness. This is especially true when those decisions result in drastic effects like removing summer steelhead from the upper Clackamas had on the angling public and the economies of the rural communities it affected. In this instance, rather than blaming hatchery fish, the public would have been better served fixing the actual problem—in this case fish passage at the North Fork Dam—that was causing wild winter steelhead to decline. 

ATTITUDES MUST CHANGE

Smith, who pulls no punches on this topic, is steadfast in his belief that the attitude toward hatcheries must change.

“We’re doing (hatcheries) a disservice for blaming hatchery fish,” said Smith. “Hatchery fish are a symptom of the decline, not the cause. You’re not going to fix the problem by removing hatchery fish.” 

And this brings us to how Courter’s study will be used for future hatchery practices. With his findings, it’s important that policy decision makers understand that hatchery steelhead don’t always have negative effects on wild steelhead as was previously thought.

“As managers consider eliminating a hatchery program, reducing production, or maybe starting a new hatchery, having in mind this kind of assessment is pretty important,” said Courter. “The goal of useful science is to accurately inform policy decisions, not to dictate policy, but to inform policy, which means scientists must correctly describe the probable outcome of a suite of choices and provide their confidence in those interpretations so that policy makers can balance conservation and exploitation in accordance with societal values. Clearly, in this case, scientists did not accurately describe the probable outcome of eliminating hatchery fish and a policy decision was made that didn’t play out the way managers were expecting.

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