Make Abundance The Priority

January 11, 2020
January 11, 2020
January 11, 2020
January 11, 2020

Make Abundance The Priority

It’s time to arm ourselves with facts and demand that our fisheries be managed for abundance and hatcheries receive the funding they deserve.

By Jack Smith

As often happens in the Pacific Northwest a winter storm put a stop to what had been a very slow start to the year’s winter steelhead fishery. In customary fashion I spent several days tying leaders, creating yarn balls, preparing rods and reels and hoping that fishing would pick up as the water once again became fishable. As I dreamed of the upcoming fishing it struck me that according to the calendar, we were in the peak of the winter steelhead season and I was concerned that dropping water would not result in several days of stellar fishing.

When I first started guiding, several decades ago, and fish were abundant, I might have worried about how big the crowd of anglers would be, what drifts or runs I would be able to fish, what technique would produce and how well to dress for the expected weather. The last thing on my mind would have been if, under the perfect conditions we were about to experience, there would be fish. It was a given and not even the slightest concern.  

Fishing on a very popular steelhead river that produced over 10,000 harvested steelhead annually there would be fish present, and in abundance. The question wasn’t will there be fish, but rather it was how many and where will they be? Today we cross our fingers and hope fish will be there in catchable numbers. 

What changed? 

Habitat, while far from perfect, is better than it has ever been since huge forest fires devastated the watershed. Although we are better at catching fish, angling pressure is actually lower than in the past. And even though the number of hatchery fish being released has been cut by well over 50 percent, hatchery practices have improved making for a better hatchery fish that return at a higher rate than old style programs. Put it all together and fishing should be better, not worse. At first glance the only excuse that could not be explained away was “ocean conditions” or “global warming.” Perhaps that was it.

Having competed all my tackle preparations, and still left with time on my hands, I did what every modern-day fisherman does and began cruising the internet. My hope was to learn a new hot technique that would boost my expectations for success in the coming days of perfect water conditions. 

And then I saw it, a recent video of anglers fishing in a stream below a tribal hatchery on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. In the video there were lots of folks fishing from both sides of the stream catching a lot of fish, which brought back pleasant memories of how it used to be on my home river. So, what was the difference? Didn’t these fish swim out into the same ocean as those from my home river and spend the majority of their lives in that same ocean? So much for ocean conditions and climate warming causing the lack of fish in my home river. I wanted to know more. And so it began.

The first thing I noticed was the attitude of tribal hatchery managers and their approach to fish production. Based on their statements, tribal managers believe that supplementation is necessary to provide abundance until such a time that we are able to fix habitat so that it is capable of providing the same, or very similar, number of fish. Their focus is on abundance because they understand the importance of providing the fisheries that wild fish used to provide historically. They plant enough hatchery fish so that during “bad” ocean conditions fishing remains good and during “good” ocean conditions fishing is awesome.

In my experience, the politically hamstrung folks that manage our local hatchery programs are led by their philosophical belief that hatchery fish are bad for wild fish. Providing sustainable fish populations and robust fisheries, especially consumptive fisheries, is not important to them.

Based on recent return rates it’s obvious our hatchery managers are focused on funding and furthering the philosophical belief that hatchery fish have significantly contributed to the decline of wild fish. The author, Jack Smith, finds this perplexing.

Instead of producing the number of fish required to provide robust fisheries they plant the minimal amount of fish to provide good numbers of returning fish during great ocean conditions, which too often results in closures during poor ocean condition cycles. It is their hope that a minimal amount of stocking will keep anglers, who are paying the bill, interested enough that they will continue to fund their politically motivated beliefs about how our fish should be managed.

Based on recent return rates it’s obvious our hatchery managers are focused on funding and furthering the philosophical belief that hatchery fish have significantly contributed to the decline of wild fish. I find this perplexing and continued my internet research.

Without much effort I was able to find plenty of studies related to hatchery fish and their impact on wild fish. Many of the studies contradict one another with some pointing to the negative impacts of hatchery fish and others showing hatchery fish are not the problem.  

Almost without exception the negative hatchery studies focused on individual reproductive fitness and failed to discuss or identify what effect that had on abundance. I was not able to find a single study that showed reducing or removing hatchery fish from a watershed that historically had wild fish, resulted in increased numbers of wild fish, absent other factors. In other words, there is no scientific evidence showing that reducing hatchery plants will, by itself, result in more wild fish.

Despite the absence of evidence, wild fish advocates and apparently agency managers, continue to scapegoat hatchery fish as a, and in some cases the, major problem. Wild fish advocates demand, and managers accommodate, by reducing and in some cases eliminating hatchery supplementation. The result? Reduced opportunity for anglers, significant negative economic impact to businesses and rural communities and no improvement in wild fish numbers.

Carmen McDonald wrote an article written explaining why empirical observation is at odds with most of what we are fed as sound science. 

“Confronted with the notable differences between the scientific papers and the empirical evidence of what is taking place around us, further investigation was necessary,” McDonald wrote. “Given the juxtaposition of what science has delivered and what’s available to anyone who wants to study the empirical evidence, it would seem that the priority of all concerned individuals, scientists or otherwise, would be to bridge the gap between relative reproductive success and adult populations. It would seem that all kinds of studies would be focusing on those places where hatchery fish have been removed in order to quantify what, if anything, has been gained.”

McDonald went on to explain that one scientist, D. Brent Lister, has looked at the issue. Lister, who has no dog in the hatchery/wild debate, published a study in 2014 that looked at both productivity and adult population trends. The study was the first of its kind and since his findings were first released it began making significant waves. The results of Lister’s study run counter to what anglers are being led to believe by fish and wildlife departments and preservation groups. 

All study quotes that follow are from: D. Brent Lister (2014) Natural Productivity in Steelhead Populations of Natural and Hatchery Origin: Assessing Hatchery Spawner Influence, Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, 143:1, 1-16, DOI: 10.1080/00028487.2013.824919

It should be noted that “Transactions of the American Fisheries Society” is one of the most difficult journals in North America to be published in. In other words, sloppy work does not make the cut.

Lister’s study differs from the rest of the reproductive success studies because most of them show in simple terms that the number of recruits per total number of spawners goes down when hatchery fish are added. Those studies do not appear to measure effects, if any, in the number of recruits per wild spawners within the mixed population.

In total, Lister’s work concludes that when a wild population is at capacity, the addition of hatchery fish cannot grow the population. Capacity dictates what the population is capable of. It also concludes that when the wild population is below stream capacity the hatchery fish, though less successful, actively contribute to adult spawner abundance. And finally, by using 25 years of comparative trend lines, Lister was unable to find any deviation in the abundance of adult summer steelhead between control (wild only) and variable (wild/hatchery) streams. The hatchery fish did not drag down the abundance of the wild fish.

Travis Moncrief is holding proof that hatcheries work. This hatchery steelhead is the result of the wild broodstock program on the Wilson River in Oregon.

Lister’s study shows that hatchery fish provide abundance without reducing the wild fish population. Robust fisheries require abundance.

Like many of you I supported reducing hatchery supplementation in favor of promised wild fish abundance. But we know what happened. Fewer hatchery fish were planted, wild fish numbers did not increase and now we are faced with wondering if there will be any fish to catch. I’m betting you will agree, it’s time for change.

It’s time to arm ourselves with facts and demand that our fisheries be managed for abundance and hatcheries receive the funding they deserve. Sport anglers, who pay the bill, are getting the short end of the stick. License fees increase, hatcheries are in disrepair leading to massive die-offs of fish we paid for and wild fish numbers are not improving while advocates press legal actions to further their false agenda. The truth is we can, and should, have abundant fisheries that include healthy wild fish populations. Let’s make it happen.

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