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Hatchery Habitat Hasn't Helped

by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, May 22, 2004

A century of experience has shown that hatcheries haven't replaced the salmon lost to overfishing and massive habitat changes, and many scientists believe they're doing more harm than good.

Hatcheries have been rooted in the Pacific Northwest for more than a century, originally to compensate for overfishing and, later, to offset the effects of hydroelectric dams. Hatchery-raised fish now account for the overwhelming majority of salmon and steelhead returning to spawn in the Columbia River.

So far, the results have been less than sterling.

In the Columbia River, 12 stocks of salmon and steelhead have been declared threatened or endangered. Historic runs, estimated at 10 million to 16 million wild fish, have dwindled to 3 million in recent years. Favorable ocean conditions have boosted the number of fish to record numbers, although the "record" only goes back to when official fish counting started at Bonneville Dam in 1938.

Equating hatchery fish to the last vestiges of salmon spawning in the wild raises fundamental questions about salmon recovery.

Salmon raised generation after generation in the concrete and steel environment of hatcheries gradually lose genetic characteristics adapted to specific rivers and streams. In protecting hatchery-raised fish from the hazards faced by fish spawned in streams, scientists writing in the March 26 edition of the journal Science noted that "hatchery fish usually have poor survival in the wild" due to changes in migration timing, coloration and feeding behavior.

The Bush administration's top salmon manager in the Northwest acknowledges the shortcomings.

"The hatchery system is just not integrated with wild runs," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

A recent scientific review commissioned by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council concluded that artificial production remains an "experimental" process almost 130 years after the first hatchery was established in the region. In the Columbia River basin, 172 hatcheries churn out millions of smolts each year with factory efficiency, yet barely a third bother to report how many return from the ocean as adults ready to spawn.

The same study noted that many of those hatchery-raised adults stray to the wild, where they compete for food and spawn with wild fish.

Lohn said the danger from hatchery fish is real.

Hatchery fish are having an "adverse effect" on at least half of the 26 stocks of West Coast salmon or steelhead currently protected by the Endangered Species Act, he said.

None of the agencies responsible for hatcheries has calculated the combined annual cost of operating myriad state, federal, tribal and privately operated hatcheries, although it's clear that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year producing fish for sport, commercial and tribal fisheries.

"We've created a hatchery program that's a monster right now," said Bill Bakke, executive director of the Native Fish Society in Portland.

Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Hatchery Habitat Hasn't Helped
The Columbian, May 22, 2004

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