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Hatcheries are No Substitute for Quality Habitat

by Chris Wood
Guest Commentary, The Oregonian, September 8, 2003

A full seven months before his August trip to the Northwest, President Bush foreshadowed the administration's new salmon policy in his State of the Union Address. The president said that "the greatest environmental progress will come about not through endless lawsuits or command and control litigation, but through technology and innovation." He was partly right. Technology and innovation have indeed contributed to the recent projected increases in Oregon coastal coho salmon, although the "progress" for which they're responsible is measured largely through the artificial abundance of excessive hatchery production. Further, most scientists have been quick to caution that favorable cycles in the ocean have played the lead role.

In response to these estimated increases, James Connaughton, the Bush administration's environmental policy chief exclaimed, "something as visible as the coho salmon can capture people's imagination about what can be accomplished" when, as he said later, an "infrastructure of real people [do] real things." Referring to the recovery of Oregon coho, he went on to say, "It's not just a plan" (The Oregonian, Aug. 13).

Connaughton is correct. It's more than just a plan; it is a chimera. Like the legendary serpent-tailed, lion-headed goat used to frighten children of ancient Greece into obedience, the Bush administration's promise of recovery for Oregon coast coho is a myth wrapped in a threat. The myth is the contention that recent robust runs composed overwhelmingly of hatchery fish and precipitated by good ocean cycles constitutes recovery. The threat is that once we begin to believe the myth, we are allowing irreplaceable wild salmon to drift into extinction.

We all want robust populations of salmon. Notwithstanding the Bush administration's rosy projections, we're just not there yet. According to the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, an estimated 980,000 coho are gathering on the coast of Oregon for their return to freshwater. Eighty-five percent of these, however, are hatchery fish -- spawned in plastic trays and reared in concrete raceways. These hatchery productions out-compete wild fish for food, are genetically weaker, and more prone to disease and predation than wild fish. Unfortunately, this part of the "solution" remains a big part of the problem.

Coho salmon spawned and grown in the wild are a far more accurate barometer of salmon recovery. And the data indicate these fish are in deep, deep trouble. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council predicts that wild runs of 2003 coho will decline by 62 percent from 2002.

Hatcheries represent the sort of blind reliance on quick techno-fixes to complex ecological problems that led engineers to build 300-foot monolithic dams in river migration corridors and blithely project the well-being of salmon. Hatchery technology and innovation cannot substitute for the most obvious need of coho salmon: healthy habitat.

President Bush's recent visit to Washington state and other government pronouncements and policies presage the administration's intent to diminish the protection of imperiled wild salmon in the hope such action will remove restrictions to commercial development on public and private lands and waters. Consider, for example, the administration's decision to review whether 26 salmon and steelhead stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act should remain protected because of hatchery production. Rather than address the confounding factors that have led to the decline of wild salmon namely habitat degradation in the case of coho the administration is positioning hatcheries as a surrogate for the high quality habitat that has nurtured Pacific salmon for millennia.

The implications of such a policy extend far beyond the Oregon coast and across public and private lands and waters in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California, where agency managers and private owners have taken laudatory steps to improve river flows, logging, road building, mining and other practices that can cause erosion, diminish water quality, and otherwise jeopardize fish or degrade freshwater habitat. All of these protective actions are the result of the ESA and would be jeopardized if salmon lose current habitat protections because of inflated numbers due to hatchery production.

Hatcheries may yet play a legitimate conservation role in the recovery of our Pacific salmon. With the exception of stocks that are so depleted that returning fish can be counted on one hand such as Snake River sockeye, however, hatcheries should not and cannot replace the value of high quality habitat that sustains naturally reproducing runs of wild salmon.

Chris Wood is vice president of conservation for Trout Unlimited in Portland.
Hatcheries are No Substitute for Quality Habitat
The Oregonian, September 8, 2003

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