the film
Commentaries and editorials

Hatchery Reform takes Big Step Forward

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 20, 2002

Key lawmakers endorse recommendations by scientific panel to protect wild salmon

Beginning a series of overhauls to prevent hatchery-bred salmon from overwhelming the wild salmon prized as a Pacific Northwest symbol, a panel of scientists yesterday recommended closing one Puget Sound-area hatchery and changing 22 others.

The report by the congressionally blessed Hatchery Scientific Review Group marks the first systematic attempt to reform Washington's fish-hatchery system, the world's largest.

The scientific panel carefully navigated the politically explosive minefield of salmon hatchery politics to issue 218 recommendations to state and tribal fisheries managers that boiled down to this:

Emphasize quality over quantity, and tweak the hatchery system so it is more in tune with Mother Nature.

The scientists' recommendations were immediately endorsed by key members of the Washington congressional delegation, by the leader of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and by Gov. Gary Locke, who pledged $8 million in state funding for hatchery reform, even as the state wrestles with a huge budget deficit.

"We are all committed to making these hatcheries function in a way that will not hurt wild fish and will in fact aid in their recovery," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who helped obtain $12.6 million for the hatchery-reform program over the last three years. "As a sportsman ... we want to see sustainable salmon runs."

Of the 23 hatcheries studied, only one was targeted for closure by the scientific group: the parasite-ridden, improperly designed McAllister Creek Hatchery near Olympia. It was one of three hatcheries already slated for closure due to state budget cuts.

The recommendations cover three of 10 regions in the Puget Sound area and about one-quarter of the hatcheries that will be reviewed in the Puget Sound area and along the coast. Whether similar reforms will be undertaken elsewhere in the state remains to be seen.

More than 100 hatcheries have been built in Washington since the late 1800s to compensate for the myriad ways civilization has battered the fish runs, from overfishing to building dams that walled off huge swaths of rivers the fish used for spawning.

But beginning in the 1950s, scientists began compiling evidence suggesting that the presence of hatchery-bred fish can be harmful to wild fish, and that hatchery-reared fish are less able to survive in the long run than the wild ones.

Hatchery-bred fish compete with wild fish for space in rivers and for food, for instance. And while enormous numbers of hatchery fish can be produced, they often fail to return from their trip to the sea to reproduce at the same rate as wild ones.

Some studies suggest that hatchery fish that do return and stray away from their hatchery to interbreed with wild fish don't get the job done as well as wild fish.

And hatchery fish, many scientists say, are wiping out much-needed genetic variations in the fish. Genetic variability has allowed salmon to survive thousands of years in streams as varied as the steep, cold creeks of the rain-drenched Olympic Peninsula and the slow-moving, warmer waters where the Snake River creeps through arid high desert -- all the while hustling to survive through droughts, floods, stream-altering volcanoes and earthquakes, and in an ocean whose hospitality regularly surges and then swoons.

Advocates for wild fish have called for years for the closing of hatcheries. But because hatchery fish make up a large amount of the current commercial and recreational catches, fishermen and many Indian tribes have resisted.

Now, though, the review group's work is being blessed, with some minor reservations, by Puget Sound-area tribes and the fishing industries' lead advocate in state government, the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Instead of focusing on how many young fish are produced by hatcheries, the scientists said, managers should concentrate on how many adults return.

They also said hatcheries should only use eggs from local salmon, since they are adapted to the particular conditions of their home streams, and that hatchery managers should not crank out so many fish that they overwhelm the capacity of a stream.

"The tribes, they support hatchery reform," said Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, a group of Puget Sound-area tribes. But he added, "It's only one part of a big puzzle. ... Hatcheries do not take the place of habitat. They never have, never will."

Said DFW Director Jeff Koenings: "The hatchery-reform project for the first time provides a comprehensive, scientifically based program to move our hatchery system into the next century. ...We are going to redo how we produce salmon."

Locke praised the "unique, groundbreaking" collaboration of the tribes, state officials and the scientists, calling it "a win-win for the environment." The $8 million in state funding, he said, is needed to physically modify hatcheries and will serve as an economic stimulus package.

"This could have turned into a very ugly fight," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Reaction was mixed. Some observers praised the panel's recommendations, while others said the scientists started out with the faulty assumption that most of the hatcheries should remain open.

"This is good stuff for fish," said Bill Robinson, executive director of the Washington Council of Trout Unlimited. "I think it's both time and money well-spent, and I look forward to seeing what the rest of the reports will recommend."

Countered Bill Bakke of the Native Fish Society: "The conceptual part of it is nothing really new. A lot of what they're tooting their horn over is stuff that has already been agreed to, and now the question is whether the funding will be available."

But it was a major step forward to get the state and tribal fisheries managers on board to begin with, said Barbara Cairns, executive director of Long Live the Kings, the non-profit group that spearheaded the effort and was tapped by Congress as its facilitator.

"The debate of hatcheries more often than not turns into a religious debate, and everybody gets mad and nothing ever changes," Cairns said. "One of the important things about this process was they chose not to get into the polarizing debate of, should we close all the hatcheries or keep all of them open."

Robert McClure
Hatchery Reform takes Big Step Forward
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 20, 2002

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation