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Hatchery Salmon Prove Pricey

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, May 12, 2002

What price Columbia Basin salmon?

The answer is not at the supermarket or the seasonal roadside kiosk -- that price per pound is way too low. Neither is it in the mystique of the uncatchable and unsellable protected species -- that number is unknowable.

Now, however, economists have penciled out prices for adult salmon returning from the ocean:

The last two figures are not misprints.

Only a handful of Redfish Lake sockeye, in central Idaho, succeed in returning each year, pushing the cost per fish sky-high. Each returning Nez Perce chinook is projected by independent economists to initially cost $4,646.17 once the tribe's new state-of-the-art hatchery in the Clearwater River Basin goes online late this year.

The numbers represent how much it cost to build, staff, manage and monitor hatcheries that hatch fish, feed them and deliver them to the river system. The young salmon, called smolts, head for the ocean and -- if everything works -- return as mighty adults in two, three or four years.

Most fish don't make it, however. Hence the hefty tab for survivors.

The value of a legally caught fish is even higher.

It means nothing that the same surviving fish, if caught and sold as "wild" in some stores, brings in just $10 to $17 a pound retail. The two phenomena are unconnected.

The hatchery system, the largest of its kind in the world, comprises more than 100 hatcheries throughout the vast Columbia Basin. It is an $80 million-a-year government effort that keeps fish in rivers, for recreational and commercial harvest and for the sustenance of dwindling species.

Problem: No one's in charge, and no one keeps track.

Hatcheries do not operate under a blueprint that governs their practices or integrates the wildlife interests of Idaho and Washington and Oregon. Some hatcheries exist to create fish for harvest; others exist to replenish specific rivers that have declining stocks of wild salmon; yet others exist to compensate for spawning grounds cut off by dams.

There are no measures by which to gauge hatchery success or failure. And the knowledge remains that Columbia Basin salmon, overall, are not recovering on their own, despite improved runs in the past two years.


Now the Northwest Power Planning Council is on the case.

The council, composed of two governors' representatives each from Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Montana, has started a year-long review of hatchery policies and practices. The first step was having independent economists examine hatchery costs. The economists calculated the costs of hatchery fish by averaging returns over several years.

The economists' study, a first, is not yet complete. But preliminary calculations, among them the price per returning fish at six hatcheries in the Columbia Basin, are startling.

"We have a whole bunch of hatcheries in the Columbia Basin with a wide spectrum of objectives," said Hans Radtke, a member of the economics board. "Hatcheries need to be categorized by measurable objectives. Until we do that, we can't compare one hatchery to another one and find ways to improve the system."

Daniel Huppert, a scientist colleague working on the review, puts it another way: "You have all these different hatchery programs started at different times and places for different reasons and different funding. There's nobody responsible for reviewing them as a unit."


Does that mean $300 or $7,400 is too much -- or too little -- for an individual fish?

The Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery is designed to produce salmon that will breed naturally in the Clearwater River, where salmon are having trouble, and seven of its tributaries. If that effort to reintroduce fish to the wild works, Radtke says, expensive salmon may be worth the price.

"This hatchery may be a cheaper alternative than some other measures, such as taking out dams, restoring habitat or whatever else," he says.

Likewise, Idaho Fish and Game's sockeye salmon hatchery in Eagle, Idaho, is designed to save Redfish Lake sockeye salmon from extinction. Just 26 adult hatchery-born sockeye returned last year, and the average in the past three years was 96 fish. Operating the hatchery and monitoring the results costs $714,000 a year, making each one of those 96 survivors worth $7,437.50 -- a price that Paul Kline, hatchery manager, thinks may be worth paying.

"How do you assign a price to saving this last remnant of a population?" Kline said. "Some people would say we are spending too much money. Other people would say these fish are worth protecting at any cost."

Still, until hatcheries are managed as a unified system, it's impossible to make such a judgment definitively.

Some biologists worry that hatcheries, if improperly run, pose serious risks to imperiled wild stocks. Prolific hatcheries may produce fish that thrive in a hatchery's concrete tanks but are poorly suited for life in the wild, and biologists say that such fish could weaken wild stocks by taking their food or habitat and by interbreeding with them.

Anglers are allowed to keep hatchery-born salmon with their adipose fins removed. Most wild-born salmon and non-clipped hatchery salmon, such as the ones from Idaho's Eagle Hatchery, are off-limits to anglers.
(Nonetheless, Redfish Lake sockeye have been harvested in NMFS authorized fisheries the last two years - adds bluefish).


Jim Lichatowich, a fisheries biologist and longtime critic of hatcheries, says hatcheries have never solved the problem of declining salmon runs.

"We made a bargain 126 years ago and traded habitat and rational harvest for hatcheries," said Lichatowhich, whose 1999 book "Salmon Without Rivers" argues that hatcheries have failed to stop the decline of Pacific salmon in the Northwest. "We were so sure of the success of that bargain we did not even begin to evaluate it."

Hatcheries exploded throughout the Columbia Basin after the region's first one was built on the Clackamas River in 1877. Now they're operated or funded by each of the Northwest states, by tribes, by utility companies and by federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Most funding comes from federal tax revenues or from the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets electricity generated by federal dams in the Columbia Basin. But no agency is in charge of calculating how much is spent to run hatcheries. A tally by The Oregonian found federal and ratepayer funding last year exceeded $80 million.

The evaluation Lichatowich longs for, however, has begun.

It will be guided by the power council study and a separate assessment titled the "Hatchery and Genetic Management Plan," to be carried out by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which manages Northwest salmon recovery.

When it's done, every salmon and steelhead hatchery in the Northwest will have been examined, with its goals identified and its ability to meet its goals gauged.


It's an ambitious effort -- and overdue.

"We have a lot of well-meaning people not operating on a coordinated basis," said Larry Cassidy, chairman of the power council.

Bill Bakke, the executive director of the Native Fish Society, a Portland conservation organization, calls the review essential.

"Hatcheries are a major investment in the region of public dollars, and yet we have not determined whether these hatcheries are cost-effective, contribute to fisheries or damage native wild salmonids," he said. "We need to have these programs evaluated to justify the public spending."

Answers in the salmon world, however, have always been elusive. And Lichatowich, for one, is cautious in his assessments.

"Hatcheries have never had the kind of economic and biological oversight that they seem to be headed for right now," he said. "Whether they will actually achieve it remains to be seen."

Jonathan Brinckman
Hatchery Salmon Prove Pricey
The Oregonian, May 12, 2002

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