Save the Whales? Deploy the Hatcheries!

North of Falcon Fallout
July 28, 2020
July 28, 2020
North of Falcon Fallout
July 28, 2020
July 28, 2020
Privatization of hatcheries will work only if priority is placed on chinook production. Here, chinook
salmon from Ballard Locks in Seattle.

Save the Whales? Deploy the Hatcheries!

The clamor to save the orcas is so loud it’s cracking crystal in Hong Kong. A few lone voices, the usual ones, are squeaking in horror as the call to increase hatchery chinook production grows urgent. Voices from all directions cry out as one: somebody do something! Ah, were it that simple.

By Patrick McGann, Editor At Large

The Southern Resident orcas are starving. They’re celebrities. They’re movie stars. America loves orcas. The whole world loves orcas. Somebody mentioned that the main food source of the orca whale is chinook salmon. I don’t know, but OK. And that the orcas don’t have enough chinook to eat. And orcas are not only starving, they are being poisoned by having to utilize their own fat, made toxic by PCB pollution from factories of old along the Duwamish River and Commencement Bay. The crisis shifts from merely tragic to nauseating. Not only that but we know these southern resident whales by name. So when one turns up missing, as Mega, a large male, did recently, it’s almost like an Amber or Silver alert.

             Washington, where the besieged orcas live, has hatcheries that make chinook salmon. Those hatcheries, having been scared into a glide slope decline since 1989 by the small-in-number-but-large-in-litigiousness wild fish activists in Washington, are operating way under capacity. With enough cash, and not really all that much compared to light rail or education funding court orders even Washington, with the most ramshackle tax system outside of Chhattisgarh province in India, can just pump out more chinook. Just save the whales, dammit. Having declared victory in his presidential campaign, Gov. Jay Inslee set his pronounced jaw and basso-profundo roared, “Release the smolts!” Thusly, problem solved.

            OK, OK, we know there’s a little slack in that line. More than a little. Whenever tax money is involved, you’re going to run into resistance from the LGLTGs (less government/lower tax gits; they have their own flag…). And surely the wild fish people will light themselves on fire at some point and start mass-printing summons. And then you have the parties. The Democrats hear the klaxon of this unbelievably simple mission and fling themselves in all directions like chickens startled by a tsunami siren. And the Republicans, as sinister as movie villains, sit there trying to figure out some sort of evil triple-bank-shot Ayn Rand plot twist to smite the socialist beast.

While killer whales are on the verge of starving, hatchery fish production has dropped from 80 million chinook smolts in 1989 to 40 million in 2018.

            Last year the Washington legislature, at the governor’s request, increased chinook hatchery funding by $15 million while also providing millions for salmon hatchery infrastructure improvements. That is roughly equivalent to a Coke can of gas to get home from the coast. Better than a poke in the eye, though. However, in a squabble over the Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission’s sudden onset of belligerent dementia, the Democratic majorities crammed a requested 15 percent license fee increase down their throats and erased the Columbia River Enhancement Stamp fee for good measure. Take that! Now what?

            The clamor continues to do something and maybe nothing, and the temptation to take advantage of the situation must be irresistible.

            Take the latest legislative scheme, for example. Please.

            Amidst the rainbow beanies and tangled beards of Bellingham are some enterprising entrepreneurs who think they have an answer to the problem of making money by seeming to solve the whale crisis. Involved in that, loosely, is getting enough “salmon” in the water fast enough to put out the fire in everybody’s hair on the orcas. It’s an interesting idea and were it not being sold as an easy fix, I’d be tempted almost to hope.

            The marketing plan is to pledge to copy Alaska’s miraculous model and forge a private-public partnership, harnessing the omnipotent powers of capitalism and lure venture capital with the allure of public subsidy to pump hatchery fish into Bellingham Bay like drug companies pumping Oxycontin pills into Appalachia. (Arg! … It’s apt, stay with me.) This is not out of the goodness of their hearts. Seriously. They hope to make money from commercial fishers, both tribal and non, which is certainly not a bad idea at all. And to harvest eggs, milt and “carcasses” in excess of what’s needed to sustain a glut of hatchery fish and sell them. As an ardent capitalist myself, I have no problem with the concept.

            But there’s this catch. When I first heard this, I have to admit, I thought, ‘Wait, this worm looks tasty but the last time I bit on something like this I got a hook buried in my jaw bone and lost half my scales in a knotted landing net.’ Then I thought, ‘That’s not fair. I should think about it.’ And in concept I think this idea is not so horrible. After all, what can be so wrong about getting commercial trollers and netters, both tribal and not, to pitch in money directly to grow large numbers of hatchery chinook that we can all catch. I kinda like that idea. I kinda like that a lot.

            So where’s the hook? Well, let’s look at the Alaska hatchery miracle, shall we? They started this back in the ’70s. And truly, it’s been a real success story for Alaska’s commercial fishers, especially when climate or other incidents have caused declines in chinook, coho and sockeye. So the private-public hatcheries produced enough chinook, coho and sockeye to make up for the natural declines? Ah. Not so much. Thar be the hook.

            Alaska’s private-public hatcheries are horrendous producers of chinook. It’s a joke. Their private/public hatchery production of chinook is minuscule, less than one (< 1) percent of total P-P hatchery production. It’s mostly clubs and elementary schools. What these private/public hatcheries are able to do is crank out huge numbers of pinks and chum. The reason they can’t or won’t, really, produce meaningful numbers of chinook is that it is not profitable to do so. In fact, it is insanely unprofitable. Costs are way too high and returns are way too low. We all know that, don’t we? Apparently not. The private sector is good at making profit when profit is to be made, but it is miserable at doing things of great expense and difficulty that are not profitable. “Miserable” is too weak a word. But wave the flag of private sector and eyes glaze and heads nod. Magic. Private industry hatchery chinook are the vertical slope timber that nobody wants to cut but lightning still likes to strike. “Private/public partnership” is the rattles and incantations of political witch doctors that simple minds can’t resist.

Reduction of hatchery production has resulted in reduction of salmon and whale populations. The Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery on the Columbia River.

            The champion of this contrivance is State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-LaCenter on the Lewis River, land of the prickly gillnetters. She is joined by co-sponsors Kevin Van de Wege, D-Sequim, Shelly Short, R-Addy, Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, Alan Hasegawa, D-Seattle and Linda Wilson, R-Vancouver. Sponsors of the House companion bill are Luanne Van Werven, R-Lynden and Kelly Chambers, R-Puyallup. This is not a bunch you usually consider villains, mostly.

            But we do have heads of our own. Is there a reason we can expect a private/public hatchery to operate in a way that is significantly different than what is happening in Alaska? No. Flat no. The “Miracle of Alaska” is how the idea is being sold. There is nothing in either version providing for a minimum percentage of chinook or any at all for that matter. If we want scads of pinks and chum, this is great. But alas, it’s not going to help orcas.

            I like catching pinks. It’s fun. Chum I’m not too interested in. If we can guarantee that a private-public hatchery partnership would produce mostly or totally chinook, then I’m all in. Or for that matter, herring, which, frankly, really would be magic. But I’m not going to pretend that this operation is going to viably produce chinook. I don’t think the people proposing this do either. The politicians are just shouting, “ORCA! ORCA! ORCA!” to sell an idea that will do absolutely nothing to help Orcas and possibly a great deal to wreck the chinook and coho fisheries of northern Puget Sound.

            Sen. Rivers did say that her first version of the bill should be considered a rough draft. Fair enough. Stipulate that these public/private hatcheries will produce only or mostly chinook, and let these entrepreneurs figure out how to make a profit doing it, and I’ll be a big, big fan.

            And the Democrats. You know, isn’t it something how a one-party state can be so dysfunctional? They all are, you know. Last year there was a brilliant piece of legislation introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jesse Saloman, D-Shoreline to get rid of non-selective nets everywhere under the authority of the state. It was sponsored by 27 senators, a majority of the Senate. But non-tribal gillnetters still loom larger than life or even bad fiction in the minds of House Democrats and it got stalled, hobbled and gummed to death, quietly, like you’d see a plague or something covered up in China. Oh, yeah, those Democrats are scared pea green over the dark forces of anti-democracy and pay as you go governance, all righty.

            At any rate, hatcheries. Salmon. Orcas. Funding. Hello? Hellooooo? Anybody there?

            So the wheels are threatening to come off the WDFW this year. And it’s a little difficult to crank up a Marshall Plan of hatchery chinook production when the people doing it are collapsing from malnutrition. This is probably what’s driving legislators to power down their skepticism and look to perpetual motion hatchery machines as a solution.

            Look, it’s time to get over the 2019 Commission. Whack, yes, but starving the department isn’t going to make that situation one iota better.

            Democrats, you, yes, you cut the WDFW general fund contribution by $38 million during the Great Recession as an emergency measure and you’ve never restored it. This was long before Westlake was crammed cheek to jowl with Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Egyptian H1-B $100,000 salaries that you could but won’t tax and it’s time to do the right thing. And listen to you, bleating about orcas, climate change, salmon, the health of Salish Sea and damn plastic straws. Talk, talk, talk. For crying out loud, would you quit with the whatabout, whatabout, whatabout, and just fund the freakin’ department already and cut loose a massive increase in hatchery chinook production? S’matter with you! Nothing is going to be right until that $38 million is made right.

            And the wild fish people? The Wild Fish Conservancy (WA) has been strangely quiet through all this. Too quiet. It is unsettling. The sheer roar of the voices demanding a dramatic increase in hatchery chinook production has been so deafening, the logic so unassailable, I fully expected the WFC to go to the barricades in an attempt to stop it. Is the plain need so clear even they see it? Oh, dear, no. Couldn’t possibly be. More like they’re busy doing something else.

            Like? Well, they’re threatening to sue NMFS for allowing the outrageous interception fishery in Southeast Alaska that takes something like 70 percent of the total harvest of Columbia River chinook and provokes the British Columbia retaliation interception fishery that takes 80 percent of the total harvest of Puget Sound fish. Huh. I say again. Huh.

            A fairer man, or rather a more forgetful man, a man with a full magazine of exclamation marks, might say, ‘Bravo, Wild Fish Conservancy! You are doing God’s work right there! You are actually doing something that makes sense for everybody! It fits your mission. It helps everybody: sportsmen, tribes, non-tribal commercials, orcas, everybody who cares about chinook in Puget Sound, the Washington coast, the northern Oregon coast and the Columbia! It strikes a blow for basic fairness and fills a vacuum created by our Senators and Representatives in Congress who are doing nothing to protect their state from Alaskan predators. And it promises specific action that will have an immediate positive result. But that man is not me. No.

            Luckily, there is the Native Fish Society (OR). You can always count on those guys to push the self-destruct button. The NFS, which is expanding into Washington — oh, goody — strongly opposes increasing hatchery chinook production to help orcas. Their alternative is to, get this, “care” for habitat of wild chinook and strongly — STRONGLY!!! — urging a decrease in commercial harvest of mixed-stock ocean allocations. Wow. Replace direct emergency action with mish mush. Yeah, now we’re back on familiar ground.

            In 1989 Washington’s salmon hatcheries released just over 80 million chinook smolts. In 2018, that number had been reduced to 40 million. The reduction was forced due to legal action and threats of legal action by people and groups insisting that hatchery reductions would result in increases of wild fish. That did not happen. We have seen no benefits to the strangulation of salmon hatcheries. Reduction of hatchery production has resulted in reduction of salmon and whale populations. Period.

            We’ve seen a constant erosion of salmon habitat, good habitat going un-utilized by natural spawners, a loss of orca whales that parallels hatchery reductions, reductions in fishing seasons, increasing restrictions in bag limits, reductions in sport fishery participation and loss of license revenue, increasing friction between the WDFW and the Puget Sound and coastal tribes and finally, maybe, the death of the idea that if we just do nothing, it’s going to get better.

            The state of Washington and the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, both, need to slap some cold water in their faces and start cranking up the chinook hatcheries…

            …and then start thinking about sending the bill to Alaska.

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