Recovery Doesn't Begin, or End, in Concreteby Editors
The Oregonian, October 16, 2006
New research answers once and for all the claim that
hatchery-born fish are the equivalent of wild salmon
For a half-century now, the people who dammed Northwest rivers, took irrigation water from them and logged and built homes down to the water's edge have insisted there's no real difference between hatchery and wild fish.
Look, they've said: They've both been to the ocean. You can't tell them apart swimming side by side up Northwest rivers. They're both fun to catch. They taste the same.
It was just a small leap from there for the same people to argue that hatchery and wild fish should be counted together when deciding whether a species was threatened or endangered.
That argument is over and done with now. Oregon State University and federal researchers have completed an intensive study that ends this fiction that hatcheries can make up for wild steelhead and salmon runs lost to dams and pollution.
The biologists studied steelhead on the Hood River and found that typical hatchery fish produced 60 percent to 90 percent fewer offspring that last long enough to become adults than wild steelhead. Now it's clear why, after producing billions of salmon and steelhead to replace wild runs killed off of Northwest streams, many fish runs still are sinking toward extinction.
Hatchery fish are different. Captive-raised fish don't have the instincts and other traits of wild salmon and steelhead. It's taken far too long for that truth to take hold in the Northwest. Even as recently as 2001, a federal judge ordered NOAA Fisheries to count hatchery and wild coho together when determining whether the species deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act.
A shocking number of people agreed then with the idea that fish raised in concrete pens ought to be seen as the legal and biological equivalent of wild salmon regenerating in cold, clean rivers.
But now that OSU researchers have, in the words of zoologist Michael Blouin, discovered that "we've essentially created a fish version of white lab mice," maybe now the region can get on with the hard job of restoring habitat and protecting sources of water for wild salmon and steelhead.
We always have agreed that there is a place for fish hatcheries in the Northwest. Some Northwest streams would have no fish at all without hatcheries (bluefish: see Boise River may be Stocked with Steelhead Next Week). It's worth noting that the researchers found that the few hatcheries that take eggs from local wild fish, hatch and raise the young briefly in captivity, before turning them loose, actually are successful at strengthening wild stocks of salmon.
But the overwhelming majority of Northwest hatcheries are still the old-style concrete fish factories, churning out millions of salmon that will never reproduce and that very likely are mixing with wild fish and spreading their inferior traits.
The new research findings demand that the Northwest radically overhaul its hatchery programs. Wherever it's possible, hatcheries should adopt the "supplementation" model using wild salmon eggs. Most of the others, especially where it's likely they are harming wild stocks, ought to be shut down.
It's taken far too long to recognize that traditional hatcheries cannot rebuild wild populations. It's a shame that it's taken all these years to determine that concrete is not salmon habitat, after all.
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