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Record Salmon Runs? No, Hatchery Overproduction

by Joe Whitworth
Opinion, The Oregonian, September 11, 2001

You might be wondering how headlines heralding a "record drought year" and "fish in trouble" can be found in the same papers with reports of "record salmon runs." Let's set things straight.

This year's "record salmon runs" are really "record hatchery overruns" -- the product of our imposing an ever-increasing number of hatchery-raised juvenile salmon into the region's waters. The artificial glut represents the return of maybe 2 percent of the more than 140 million hatchery fish pumped into the basin in 1999.

In 1877, self-convinced that we could have our fish and eat them too, the first hatchery in the Columbia River basin was created on the Clackamas River. Back then, with fish wheels that ran 24 hours a day and horse-seining operations that pulled salmon out of the river by the ton, cannery owners viewed hatcheries as a way to artificially maintain high levels of commercial harvest.

It worked, sort of. In the short run, the over-harvest was successfully masked and money was made without pain, but our native salmon runs declined radically.

The hatchery tonic has been conveniently used to soothe the effects of dams, unsustainable timber and agricultural practices and human development that brought the loss of or compromised more than 80 percent of historic salmonid habitat.

In the Columbia Basin, hatchery fish comprise roughly 95 percent of all coho, 70 percent to 80 percent of all spring/summer chinook and 50 percent of all fall chinook. That means far less than half our runs are wild, native fish. And that means we'll have this number of salmon in our waters only as long as we keep pumping big numbers of hatchery-produced fish into the system.

Artificial production harms native fish in a number of ways. Fish smarts, as determined by genetics, are lost with inbreeding. Concrete lap pools, housing hundreds of thousands of pellet-fed fish for a quarter of their lives, become breeding grounds for disease. When released, the fetid water impairs water quality while millions of smolts overwhelm the river's food supply and in turn, the wild fish that depend on it. More problems exist, but those are the simplified highlights.

The hatchery fiction has become an expensive one, and it has gotten us no closer to salmon recovery. Each year, it costs Oregon taxpayers a minimum of $20 million to operate its 36 hatcheries around the state. On top of that, deferred maintenance at those hatcheries is estimated at more than $30 million, about $10 for every man, woman and child in Oregon.

The punch line gets even less funny: Because the current management of hatcheries ignores the recovery of wild fish, this will go on indefinitely as native stocks continue to decline. With the number of endangered and threatened species piling up, we need to consider how long we will continue this cycle of convenience. Twenty years? Fifty? Two hundred?

Alternatively, Oregon can break out of the century-old cycle and move to achieve not only self-sustaining runs, but even harvestable surplus. Three things must happen for that to occur.

Hatchery funding must be decoupled from fishing license revenues and tied directly to increased natural production. Two main pipelines of funding exist for Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, the agency that manages the state's artificial production: legislative allocations and commercial- and sport-fishing license revenues. Currently, the incentive is to put more fish meat into our waters in order to sell more licenses.

Hatcheries must be managed with the ecology of the entire watershed in mind. Hatcheries are like tributaries to the river on which they reside, not independent of its wild fish or capacity; right now, hatcheries overwhelm the system.

Successful artificial production can no longer be defined as putting as many fish in the water as your hatchery predecessor did. Objectives must be clear, tied directly to salmon recovery, and results must be rigorously monitored, analyzed and acted upon for the benefit of native, wild fish.

Let's not fool ourselves, Oregon. The "big runs" are a fiction of our own making.

Joe Whitworth is executive director of Oregon Trout
Record Salmon Runs? No, Hatchery Overproduction
The Oregonian, September 11, 2001

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