the film
Commentaries and editorials

Glut of Salmon Poses Problem

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, October 18, 2000

Record returns of salmon and steelhead are from hatcheries,
but wild-born salmon are not enough to be considered secure

Rivers that for the past decade have held fewer and fewer salmon and steelhead are suddenly teeming with fish, causing tribes and sports anglers to ask: Why can't we catch them?

The abundance of fish does not mean the Northwest's most troublesome environmental problem is over. It's only gotten thornier.

Most of this year's record fish returns have been of salmon and steelhead born in hatcheries -- and the whopping 250,000 to 500,000 Columbia River spring chinook returning from the ocean in 2001 will mainly be from hatcheries. Wild-born salmon have not rebounded enough to be considered secure.

Whether to fish from this bounty poses the Catch-22 problem: If you target hatchery salmon, protected wild fish inevitably get caught and killed. But if fishing is severely limited and the hatchery-dominant run is allowed to bloom, state and federal biologists said, the hatchery fish damage wild salmon by breeding with them and diluting their genes or stealing their food and spawning spots.

"For the last five to 10 years we were saying if the fish could come back, everything would be OK," said Patrick Frazier, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Now we're finding that's not enough."

For sport anglers, commercial fishermen and tribes with treaty rights to Columbia River salmon, the situation is deeply frustrating. They've had to stand by this year and watch tens of thousands of salmon swim by.

"They were there, but we never got a shot at them," said Bruce Beamer, a fishing guide who -- without enough fishing business -- supports his family by working at Northwest Marine and Sport in Pasco, Wash. "It's like being at a Reno buffet and having 25 cents in your pocket you can look but can't touch."

Beamer said he is in favor of letting wild salmon recover. But he still finds the situation wrenching.

The dilemma is sharpest with upriver spring chinook, one of five salmon and steelhead species in the Columbia. More than 178,000 spring chinook crossed Bonneville Dam this year, the highest number counted since the dam was built in 1938. Yet most of those fish were born in hatcheries.

Swimming among that enormous run of hatchery-born chinook were 9,200 wild Snake River spring chinook, headed for spawning streams in the Idaho mountains. Those fish -- listed in 1992 as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act -- are doing better than in the 1990s, but still worse than before they received federal protection. Annual returns in the 1980s averaged 12,000.

Judging by the number of immature male fish -- called jacks -- counted this year, next year's return of spring chinook will be even larger. Biologists with the Oregon Department of Fish and Game forecast 250,000 to 300,000 upriver spring chinook will enter the Columbia, and some say they would not be surprised if the run topped 500,000.

One group of farm, ranch and real estate representatives, the Save the Salmon Coalition, says hatchery fish should not be considered as different from wild fish. If hatchery fish were counted with wild fish, salmon and steelhead would not be federally listed, members of the group said.

"The listing of steelhead and salmon is a serious misstep by a federal agency obsessed with a romanticized and unsubstantiated 'wild fish' policy," said Valerie Johnson Eves, a founder of the new organization.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, though, maintains that hatchery fish threaten wild stocks. "We don't believe that hatchery fish are the same as wild fish, and swamping the gene pool of wild is one of the important concerns that we have," said Robert Bayley, a fisheries biologist for the agency.

For years, sports anglers have distinguished fish born in the wild from fish born in hatcheries because the adipose fin -- a small fin on the back -- is clipped off many hatchery fish. Fish with an adipose fin are released.

But this technique has several limitations. For one thing, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a federal agency in charge of setting ocean fishing levels, calculates that 14 percent of the hooked wild fish die after they are released. Also, not all hatchery fish are marked. Some groups, including Columbia River tribes, oppose marking hatchery fish.

Separating wild and hatchery fish is more difficult with commercial fisheries. Current fishing technologies, including gill-nets in which fish are caught by their gills in long nets, kill almost every fish hauled aboard a boat.

Sport and commercial fishing seasons are set at times and locations when few wild fish are thought to be mingling with hatchery stocks. But even with that, too many wild fish are being caught, regulators said. "We've probably gotten nearly as far as we can using timing and locations," Bayley said.

People are looking for new solutions. The state Department of Fish and Game is testing "tooth nets," which are like gill-nets except with smaller mesh that catches fish by snagging their teeth. Most fish don't die in tooth nets, so those with adipose fins can be released alive.

Also under consideration: floating fish traps, a technique used in Willapa Bay, and fish wheels. Fish wheels, which were outlawed earlier this century because they were being used to decimate Columbia runs, catch salmon and steelhead alive as they swim into nets mounted on giant revolving wheels.

Rob Walton, deputy director of the Public Power Council, organized a conference in Portland this month on selective fishing. Unless ways are found to catch hatchery fish without harming wild fish, salmon recovery in the Columbia River Basin may remain an unachievable goal, he said.

"We used to think more fish would be success," Walton said. "Suddenly this year we've realized that is really quite a bit more complicated than that."

Jonathan Brinckman
Glut of Salmon Poses Problem
The Oregonian, October 18, 2000

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