the film
forum
library
tutorial
contact
Commentaries and editorials

Everything We're Doing to Replace Vanishing
Salmon Might be Killing Them Off Faster

by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, September 7, 2017


As once-uncountable Northwest salmon stocks have dwindled, humans have tried a number of remedies to bolster or replace the disappearing fish.

We’ve caught them at dams and trucked and barged them past obstacles. When the fish return home, we strip them of their eggs, fertilize them in buckets and grow new generations of baby salmon in hatchery raceways.

But what if humans have it all wrong?

What if those efforts are not just failing to work, but actually reducing the salmon’s odds of survival?

What if hatchery fish do more than just dilute the genetic fitness of the wild, native salmon that evolved to live and spawn in particular conditions in specific stretches of individual streams?

What if the billions of human-raised fish rob food from native fish competing in the limited waters of damaged ecosystems?

What if by focusing on creating more fish for people to catch and eat, we’ve simply pushed the weakened salmon closer to extinction?

That’s the conclusion of biologists Rick Williams and Jim Lichatowich, who argue that our reliance on hatcheries, our indiscriminate catch techniques, and our destruction and fragmentation of habitat are at the root of the fish’s struggles. The secret to saving the resilient, adaptable salmon might be simply getting out of their way.

“We’ve lost faith in nature,” said Williams. “Because of our long reliance on substitute nature, we’ve lost faith in salmon to reproduce itself in quality habitat.”

Williams, Lichatowich and their co-authors challenge the basis of salmon management for the past century. They argue that the mistake is treating salmon as an industrial commodity whose supply can be managed to meet demand. To save salmon we need to protect and connect the ecosystems, they say -- the places in which the salmon have adapted to spawn and survive.

Annually, states, federal agencies, tribes and contractors release 143 million salmon and steelhead juveniles raised in artificial, industrial hatcheries. Despite more than a decade of ideal conditions in the Pacific Ocean and thousands of miles of nearly pristine spawning habitat in places like Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, most specific runs of wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin have not been able to replace themselves.

Given such evidence, the biologists argue, it’s time salmon managers and dam operators take a new approach.

Idaho’s trophy imperiled

The journey of Idaho’s wild, trophy-sized steelhead makes Williams’ and Lichatowich’s case.

Idaho’s chinook and sockeye salmon enter the Pacific and turn north, swimming in schools to Alaska and back. But the steelhead, which travel in smaller groups, go 4,000 miles to the coasts of Japan and Russia, where they mix with salmon from that region’s rivers and hatcheries.

The larger B-run steelhead, as they are called, grow to more than 30 pounds. They are the most coveted prize of sport anglers and an important supplier of special oils to Northwest Indian tribes. They begin their lives in the gravel of tributaries of the Salmon and Clearwater rivers, the remnant of a great run of giant steelhead that, unlike chinook and sockeye salmon, could spawn in Idaho and return to the Pacific several times before dying.

After two or three years in the Pacific, these steelhead are now beginning their annual run up the Columbia River. But state fisheries officials say this year will be the worst steelhead returns to the Columbia in half a century. So far, only about a third of the average run -- about 97,100 steelhead -- have been counted at Bonneville Dam, the first the fish reach on their trip. Only 29,000 of them were naturally spawned.

And none of those yet include the B-run steelhead, of which only 1,100 wild fish (and another 6,200 raised in hatcheries) were predicted to arrive. The agencies have been downgrading their estimates further, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has told anglers to release all steelhead this season for the first time since 1995.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographers blame the situation on the unprecedented warm water in the Pacific from 2014 through early 2016 they called the “blob.” They say ocean conditions for salmon off the Columbia, warm and lacking in nutrient-rich food, are currently among the worst recorded.

North Pacific problem

Across the Pacific Rim, the number of hatchery-raised salmon released into the Pacific has risen since 1970 from 500 million to more than 5 billion fish. Most of these are chum and pink salmon from Hokkaido, Japan; Southeast Alaska; and Sakhalin Island, Russia. Among other threats, they can spread disease into the wild salmon population.

Hatchery fish -- which are called “wild” in the grocery store -- are allowed to interbreed with the wild salmon. That reduces the ability of their offspring to adapt and survive, according to the Wild Salmon Center, an international group based in Portland. Wild salmon and their ecosystems are more resilient. They can replace themselves at twice the rate of hatchery fish, thanks to the power of natural selection.

Japan and Russia have allowed their wild fish to disappear to a much greater extent than the U.S., and in some cases don’t even count the wild salmon anymore. Those countries are now forced to release billions of smolts into the Pacific because of the low productivity of the hatchery fish.

Even when Pacific conditions are good for salmon, the billions of hatchery fish then compete with Idaho steelhead for food as their ecosystem is overloaded. When conditions turn warm and the ecosystem productivity drops, there isn’t enough food to go around.

“We are dumping so many hatchery fish in the North Pacific, salmon are actually overgrazing the ecosystem,” said Guido Rahr, president and CEO of the Wild Salmon Center.

Idaho hatcheries officials stand behind their work.

“If you want to call the number of fish harvested a commodity, I guess that’s a personal choice. But I think it’s a very valuable use of the public trust,” said Lance Hebdon, salmon and steelhead manager for Idaho Fish and Game.

Related Pages:
A Changing Electrical Grid May Make Snake River Dams Expendable by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman, 8/6/17
With Shipping Down on Snake River, Farmers Worry About Dams' Future by Rocky Barker, Bellingham Herald, 8/7/17
Northwest Salmon, the Stuff of Legends, Still Struggle to Survive by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman, 7/8/17
Nature Again Turns Against Returning Fish that Already Face Long Odds by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman, 5/20/17
Is Snake River Shipping Worth Enough to Keep Dams that Harm Salmon? by Rocky Barker, Idaho Statesman, 8/6/17
Fate of Pacific Northwest Orcas Tied to Having Enough Columbia River Salmon by Barker & Peterson, Idaho Statesman, 7/9/17

Video Links:
How the Dams Changed Lewiston, by Ali Rizvi and Sohail Al-Jamea McClatchy, Idaho Statemsan.
Dustin Aherin of Lewiston tells how the dams changed the community he grew up in and how the unfulfilled dream of economic bounty from shipping to the Pacific Ocean has hindered the northern Idaho community's development.

The hydropower posse promotes the dams' importance, by Ali Rizvi and Sohail Al-Jamea McClatchy, Idaho Statemsan.
Will Hart, who represents 130 Idahoans who get their power from the federal dams in Oregon and Washington, explains how important they are to the municipal utilities and rural co-ops that buy their power from the Bonneville Power Administration.

Saving Salmon: Why These Remarkable Fish Matter to the Northwest, by Ali Rizvi and Sohail Al-Jamea McClatchy, Idaho Statemsan.
For hundreds of thousands of years, wild ocean salmon have been coming to the Pacific Northwest. Now, their existence is under threat, along with the communities they support.

Opinions Gathered at Boise Meeting on Dam Salmon Issues, by Staff at the Idaho Statemsan.

A Boise steelhead angler's view on dams, by Staff at the Idaho Statemsan.


Rocky Barker
Everything We're Doing to Replace Vanishing Salmon Might be Killing Them Off Faster
Idaho Statesman, September 7, 2017

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