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The Daily Bucket is a regular feature of the Backyard Science group.  It is a place to note of any observations you have made of the world around you.  Insects, weather, meteorites, climate, birds and/or flowers.  All are worthy additions to the bucket.  Please let us know what is going on around you in a comment.  Include, as close as is comfortable for you, where you are located. Each note is a record that we can refer to in the future as we try to understand the patterns that are quietly unwinding around us.

                                      Where the Salmon Wars are being fought

Once believed to be the salvation of the salmon fishing industries in the Pacific Northwest, the state run fish hatcheries are now under fire. Over one hundred and fifty years of habitat degradation and over fishing of Pacific Northwest salmonids, have left the stocks of original wild salmon seriously depleted. (I use the term salmonid which includes not only the various species of salmon but also steelhead which are ocean-going rainbow trout and bull trout, within the salmonid family.) Having observed this decline over one hundred years ago, the states developed a large network of hatcheries in an attempted to replace and maintain runs of salmon and steelhead by raising and releasing millions of salmonid fry each year into spawning streams and rivers of the state. While this process has nominally maintained some salmon runs and kept the commercial and sport fishing industries alive, they have neither replaced nor sustained the wild salmon runs of old. In fact, the hatchery raised fish appear to have harmed and reduced the viability of the wild salmon and steelhead.  

                                            Typical Hatchery scenes

2013-11-26 hatchery 007     IMG_1097

            Stripping eggs for hatchery                       Incubator trays for Chinook Salmon

IMG_1095 - Copy   2014-03-07 whatcom hatchery 015
              Chinook alevins hatching                        Chinook fry ready for rearing pond

The Endangered species Act (ESA) of 1974, operates to regulate fisheries so as to sustain and return these precious resources to their earlier levels. According to the ESA, states are required to develop plans for how their hatchery and release programs will enhance and sustain the return of wild salmonids to their native state. Before implementation, these plans must be approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) which is the wing of NOAA charged with overseeing the marine fish covered under the ESA, and as being consistent with the intent and dictates of the ESA.  It is a sad commentary on many fronts that after 40 years and who knows how many dollars later, natural stocks continue to decrease.  For example:

In 1969, the steelhead was declared Washington’s official “state fish.”  Despite that recognition, wild Puget Sound steelhead populations have steadily declined.  Since being listed as threatened under the ESA in 2007, the five-year average of Puget Sound wild steelhead abundance is about 25% of what it was in 2004, and less than 3% of what it was in 1900.
The continuing demise of wild salmonids is unfortunate for a number of reasons. One reason is the desire by those interested in conservation to preserve native wild fish that have evolved over eons and adapted to their specific habitat which has been decimated over the years. These native salmon benefit from the ecosystem and their remains contribute to it, nourishing both flora and fauna.

And in the same vein, it is important to maintain the habitats in which they evolved. These ecosystems that sustain salmon are the same ones that humans have so loved – to death. A second reason is an economic interest in that the commercial and sport fisheries in Washington State alone, according to Rep. (D WA) Rick Larsen, bring in $2.5 Billion annually while employing some 28,000 workers. And then there are the over a quarter of a million sport anglers who spend millions on equipment, guides, and boats. Thirdly, these fish have been integral to the life and culture of the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years. On any of these counts, this is a really big deal for all of the states reliant on Pacific salmonids including Oregon, California, Alaska, Washington, and British Columbia.

So, while the hatcheries are providing more salmonids for both sport fishers and for the local tribes as a commercial and subsistence fishery, the wild salmon continue to decrease. Something is not working well. Most of Washington’s salmonid fish runs are on either the ESA’s endangered or threatened species list which requires the state to take specific actions to restore them. Contending that not enough is being done to protect and enhance native salmonid stocks as per ESA requirements, wild fish conservation groups are now stepping in to legally challenge the hatchery procedures. I will briefly describe two recent suits here, one from Oregon and one from Washington. The suits are typically brought against the State Fish and Wildlife Departments and/or the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) . The NMFS must approve each hatchery plan concerning how they will enhance and return wild fish stocks that are on either the Threatened or Endangered Species lists, consistent with ESA dictates.

Sandy River, Oregon: 2012 -2014

The first suit focuses on The Sandy River, a tributary to the Columbia River, and its fish hatchery located east of Portland Oregon. Two Conservation groups (The Native Fish Society and McKenzie Fly Fishers) brought suit in Oct. 2012, against the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the NMFS for its management of the Sandy River hatchery. The suit was against the State of Oregon for having written and executed the Sandy River hatchery plan and against the NMFS for having approved the Oregon plan ostensibly to sustain the threatened Coho salmon and steelhead fisheries as directed by the ESA. The conservation groups won the suit by demonstrating that the certified Sandy River Hatchery plan actually worked against supporting the native salmonids and therefore was contrary to the ESA.

The conservationists’ arguments were 1. That too many hatchery fish are allowed to interbreed with wild fish. They said that man-made weirs and other structures meant to prevent interbreeding don't work and shouldn't have been approved under the federal Endangered Species Act. And 2. “There is no evidence that hatcheries have been effective in the recovery of wild populations,” “In fact, the evidence shows they foster a slow march toward hatchery-induced extinction. “

Further, removal of two dams on the Sandy River, hailed as a major solution to saving wild salmon apparently has ironically worked against the recovery:

“… by allowing unprecedented and harmful numbers of hatchery fish to reach previously inaccessible wild fish spawning grounds in the upper river.  This “stray” rate is nearly 8 times that committed to by ODFW and greatly jeopardizes the future returns of wild fish. “
Jan 2014, Federal judge Haggarety wrote that:
"... it is clear that the Sandy River Basin is of particular importance to the recovery of the four [Endangered Species Act] listed species and is an ecologically critical area.”
“There is very little evidence to suggest a hatchery can restore a wild population of fish,” the judge wrote, “and the Sandy Hatchery is generally not intended to achieve any recovery goals. Rather, it is undisputed that hatchery operations can pose a host of risks to wild fish.”  
After additional testimony by the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association focused on the economic impact of terminating this fishery, Judge Haggerty ruled on March 14th, to deny the conservation groups’ motion to eliminate hatchery smolt releases on the Sandy River this year. However he did order that the number of hatchery Coho be reduced from 300,000 to no more than 200,000 smolts due to the fact they were not produced from native broodstock.  

The groups will be required to continue to work with the State of Oregon to develop future plans that use native broodstock at the hatchery, find procedures to minimize contact with hatchery fish, and to maximize spawning of native stock.

Skagit River, Washington State, 2014:

In January of this year,  Wild Fish Conservancy Northwest filed “intent to sue” with Washington State Fish and Wildlife (WSFW) due to its steelhead hatchery program that they contend is actually leading to the demise of wild steelhead in Washington’s rivers. On March 31, as the 60-day notice period wrapped up, the group filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Seattle contending that WSFW had violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit sought to block the planting of a "highly domesticated" strain of steelhead originating in Chambers Creek Hatchery, South Puget Sound. The suit says the Chambers Creek steelhead have been bred artificially in hatcheries since the 1920s. Those hatchery fish can harm the wild fish by competing with them for habitat, and by breeding with them and diluting the special genetic characteristics that make wild fish uniquely equipped to thrive in their native rivers. Currently stock from the Chambers Creek Hatchery supplies about two thirds of stream planted steelhead in the state.

The focus in this suit is the Upper Skagit River steelhead population where the problems were essentially the same as those with the Sandy River runs – continuing decline in native stocks, tallying only 3% of what they were a century ago. Virtually all parties agree that the decline in wild steelhead, as with other salmonid stocks is due to the previously discussed factors of the loss of habitat, stream pollution, and urban encroachment.

A growing body of scientific evidence indicates that hatchery-origin steelhead adversely affect wild steelhead by causing negative genetic effects, attracting predators, competing for food and habitat, and also when hatchery steelhead prey on wild salmon and steelhead.  In addition, hatchery facilities block habitat and degrade water quality, adversely affecting wild fish.
The case was settled On April 1 just as the actual suit was filed. The State agreed to suspend its plans to release about 900,000 young steelhead into western Washington’s rivers. About 720,000 steelhead will instead be released into state lakes that have no salt water outlet, precluding any interbreeding with wild fish. While in the lake and not exposed to salt water, they will mature into Rainbow trout. The remaining 180,000 will be released into the Skykomish River this spring and again in 2015. They will return as steelhead in 2016 and 2017.  

Although the state had been operating on a restoration plan that included the Chambers Creek stock, that the plan had never been approved by the NMFS as is required by the ESA. The main issue revolves around a particular stock from the Chamber Creek fish hatchery. As noted above, this stock has been bred for nearly 100 years and is significantly genetically different from its wild cousins. The mandate of the ESA is to restore the wild steelhead and these particular fish cannot do that.

Although a new state and ECA approved restoration and release plan is possible in the next couple of years for other streams, a condition of the suit resolution is that there can be no releases of hatchery fish into the Skagit River for the next 12 years.

This rather drastic reduction and elimination of hatchery plants is not without consequences and considerable opposition from sport fishers and from several tribes who depend on the winter runs of steelhead for subsistence and for income. All this will be lost on the Skagit River and greatly reduced elsewhere. The tribes, who work closely with the State to maintain steelhead stocks contend that they will be deprived of their treaty fishing rights.

  The Upper Skagit natural resources director, Scott Schuyler said "... the tribes share the goal of restoring wild steelhead runs, but that is going to take decades under the best of circumstances - and circumstances are far from the best... Ending hatchery programs would mean ending sport and commercial fishing for the foreseeable future."

It appears that these salmonid wars are just beginning as other lawsuits continue  to be filed. Recently, lawsuits have also been filed to limit or block the release of hatchery-raised fish into Oregon's McKenzie River and into Washington's Elwha River where 100 year-old dams have been breached with high hopes of restoration of historic runs.

Some now believe that it is impossible to actually meet the intent of the ESA to restore wild salmon to the spawning streams in the Pacific Northwest. In spite of the numerous federal, state and local efforts to restore stream habitat and stem pollution, it remains an uphill battle. And then we have the changing climate that will affect temperatures of spawning streams as well as in the North Pacific Ocean where these fish feed for several years before returning to their native streams.

There is also a potential threat to wild salmon, mostly in Canadian waters from escapees of fish farms carrying diseases.

Compounding this problem of restoring native salmon, there is no universally accepted definition of a "wild or Native Salmon." For example, if eggs from a known wild salmon were hatched and nurtured in a hatchery until released into a stream where they smolted, went to sea for three years, returned and spawned in that stream, would its offspring qualify as wild, or hatchery salmon? What if those eggs had been fertilized by a wild salmon? Or by another hatchery raised salmon? Or other iterations?

2013-12-06 squalicum spawn 066

                                 Wild or hatchery bred spawners?

So, what do you think bucketeers?  How important is it to have “authentic wild/native salmon,” versus hatchery salmon for food, for sport, for culture? Are the goals of ESA viable in terms of returning native fish?  It all seems pretty messy to me.

"Spotlight on Green News & Views" will be posted every Saturday and Wednesday at 1:00 pm Pacific Time on the Daily Kos front page.  Be sure to recommend and comment in the diary.

Originally posted to Backyard Science on Thu Jul 03, 2014 at 07:33 AM PDT.

Also republished by Hunting and Fishing Kos, Seattle & Puget Sound Kos, and Community Spotlight.

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