Government conspiracy or poor conservation biology? Whatever the reason behind the current salmon crisis in the northwest US, one thing is certain - dams are not entirely to blame. Gemma Newman reports
The number of fish expected to travel through the US’ Columbia river system this year is impressive. Around 170,000 fish are returning to spawn a new generation of Pacific salmon. Surely this has got to be good news? Apparently not, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
About 90% of the returning fish were born and raised in hatcheries. They have been hand-fed, protected from predators and isolated from the rivers. NMFS believes this has resulted in genetically inferior fish with poor survival instincts that could threaten the survival of native or ‘wild’ salmon runs.
NMFS thinks that the best way to protect the relatively small and declining number of fish that spawn naturally in the wild, is to kill hatchery fish and destroy their eggs. But this controversial idea has caused an uproar across the northwest US. People cannot understand why a federal agency is killing thousands of fish it listed as endangered. There is also anger about the millions of dollars which have been invested into hatcheries so hatchery fish can just end up as cat food and their eggs as trout bait.
It is not surprising people are angry and explanations are needed. But at the end of the day it is always easier to blame the dams, despite the high numbers of fish (hatchery and wild) that have managed to negotiate them.
The hatchery fish killings gained attention two years ago when Ronald Yechout, a bank manager from Oregon, stumbled across employees from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) clubbing coho salmon to death with baseball bats at Fall Creek hatchery. In 1998, 6000 hatchery fish were killed at the hatchery, and in 1999 the final run of Fall Creek hatchery’s coho salmon were destroyed, under orders from NMFS.
Killing hatchery fish is a practice NMFS has been carrying out for a while, usually when more hatchery fish return then are needed for brood stock. But the killings were not made public until Yechout’s video footage of the event hit the headlines and TV shows across the states. The video has created quite a stir. Two years later people still want answers for the continued killings as they flock to hatcheries and fish ladders to watch the large number of fish coming home.
Many people in the northwest US believe that the hatchery fish are being killed so that salmon remain listed under the Endangered Species Act, providing state and federal regulatory officials with the legal basis for controlling and restricting land uses and other human activities. The attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation said: ‘It’s an example of manufacturing a crisis. It’s about control and control of property rights.’
Yechout said that it was not until 1997 that 100% of all hatchery fish produced were clipped to identify them as hatchery fish. And until recently 6.4M smolts were released into the Columbia river system. Now only 1.1M smolts are released for the whole coast. He said that he saw ODFW destroy 1.9M eggs in just one day. A lot of the fish coming back that are counted as wild fish are probably non-clipped, older hatchery fish. Now that the number of smolts released has been reduced, and all hatchery fish are clipped, he says that it is no wonder wild fish are declining.
But despite these arguments, the fate of returning hatchery fish has already been decided. The planned clubbing of hatchery fish is a highly emotive issue in the Methow river valley, where irrigators have been threatened with shutdowns for allegedly causing harm to endangered spring chinook salmon and steelhead. Tom Flint of the Save Our Dams campaign said that NMFS took the valley’s largest irrigation district to court in an attempt to force its closure after 40 endangered fish were stranded and died.
Eggs were taken from the Carson National fish hatchery on the lower Columbia river and brought to the Methow river hatchery in 1976. The fish produced from these eggs, known as the Carson stock, are scheduled to be phased out in the Methow river over the next three years. NMFS believes that the Carson stock is polluting the gene pool of native Methow river basin salmon, which it claims are better adapted to local stream conditions and are more likely to survive in the wild. Brian Gorman, an NMFS spokesman, said that native spring chinook could be lost forever if the Carson stock is not eliminated. ‘If we don’t try to separate these two, we are going to be committed to hatcheries forever,’ he said.
According to Flint, hatchery fish have been mixing and interbreeding with wild fish for over 100 years since the first hatcheries were established, so it is hard to find a truly wild salmon. There is also evidence to suggest that a percentage of salmon stray from their spawning grounds and some hatchery fish continue past the hatchery of their birth to spawn further upstream where they are then considered wild. Also, fish produced in hatcheries are often from eggs that came from fish that are not native to the river where the resulting smolts are released, as in the case of the Carson stock.
All this potential genetic dilution means that NMFS’ practice of killing hatchery fish could be futile, not to mention a waste of fish that could be used to boost runs in rivers where salmon are now extinct. No one knows the outcome of any of these actions.
‘If there really is a difference in fish that are locally adapted and have gone through environmental hazards and made it, and if that really is important to the ultimate survival of the fish, then NMFS’ argument is a pretty powerful one,’ said Bob Club, a fisheries biologist for Douglas County public utility department, in an article on Wenatchee World Online. ‘The problem is that we don’t know. In absolute certainty, no one can say that maintaining the genetic characteristics of these so-called wild fish is essential for the ultimate survival of the species,’ he said.
But what people in the northwest do see is a lot of fish that have returned from the ocean, past predators and over dams. They have survived river and ocean con-ditions to spawn and produce more salmon. It is believed that because hatch-ery fish have survived all these obstacles they have proved their genetic worth and should be allowed to live and spawn naturally in the wild.
The debate will continue to rage until the results of these actions become evident. But at the same time a number of other factors that are contributing to the decline of wild and hatchery fish are gaining recognition.
Researchers at the University of Washington have discovered a correlation between salmon catches in Alaska and Oregon. When Alaskan catches peaked, Oregon catches plummeted and vice versa. The research led by biologists Steven Hare and Bob Francis, linked salmon cycles to fluctuations in the strength and location of the Aleutian Low (a prevailing winter weather system in the North Pacific which influences the flow of currents that determine ocean productivity, or how much food is available to fish). The theory, named the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, revealed three distinct shifts in regime during the 20th century:
•1925-1946: Alaskan salmon boomed.
•1946-1976: northwest runs peaked.
•1976-1990s: northwest stocks crashed and Alaska set record harvests. In 1999, Alaska’s overall salmon harvest was the highest since 1995. Such success may be due to an improvement in ocean conditions and productivity, which have been relatively warm and hostile for salmon over the last 20 years.
Increased predation from seabirds is also a major problem. An artificial island, known as Rice island, created from the dredgings collected by maintaining shipping lanes on the mouth of the Columbia river, has been colonised by thousands of protected Caspian terns. These birds are directly responsible for consuming 25-30M smolts going to the ocean. It is thought that 1997 smolt losses will reduce the number of adult salmon and steelhead returning in 1998, 1999 and 2000 by tens of thousands. However the new colony, which is home to three-quarters of the West Coast population of terns, will be difficult to remove or reduce under US law. The birds are listed as endangered, protected or vulnerable in eight US states and in British Columbia, Canada, and there is no solid evidence that the birds are damaging salmon populations. It seems a trend is occurring here, first fish — now birds.
And then we come back to dams, the four lower Snake river dams to be more precise. Their fate, like the birds, is still undecided. The US Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) final environmental impact statement (EIS) was supposed to be released in the Spring of 2000 with a preferred option or alternative for the future of Lower Granite, Lower Monu-mental, Ice Harbour and Little Goose dams. The report will now be released in November 2000.
Brigadier General Carl Stock issued a statement that said USACE would identify a preferred alternative later this year, followed by a record of decision in 2001. The four alternatives which the USACE must choose from are:
•Retain existing conditions.
•Provide maximum transport of juvenile salmon.
•Provide major system improvements.
•Breach the dams.
Much controversy has surrounded the USACE EIS. A report in the Washington Times alleges that senior army political appointees privately ordered the USACE to erase its recommendation (that the four dams on the lower Snake river should stay) from the draft EIS released in December 1999. According to documents obtained by the Washington Times, an army secretary and his assistant secretary for civil works issued the orders in the autumn of 1999.
A USACE spokesman said that officials ordered USACE to remove the recommendation because they did not believe there was enough scientific evi-dence to make a recommendation at that time. We must now wait until November 2000 to see if the dams will stay.
The NMFS draft biological opinion (BiOp), which aims to set goals for major improvements in all seven index stocks of Snake river spring chinook over the next five years, is also causing a stir. If the goals are not achieved, then NMFS would recommend that congress approves breaching the lower Snake river dams. Tom Flint from Save Our Dams says the draft policy contradicts NMFS’ own scientists who have said another ten years of research is needed to help resolve critical uncertainties about salmon recovery. The public will get to see the document around mid-June 2000 (as IWP&DC went to press), after a week of agency review followed by a couple of weeks of perusal by the state agencies and tribes.
NMFS had originally aimed to have a new BiOp in place by April to guide this year’s hydro operations. However, the operations are expected to be similar to those that have been in effect since 1995, when the last BiOp was introduced. The new BiOp will contain performance standards that will set new goals for fish survival.