Hatcheries are an Asset, Dams a Liabilityby Liz Hamilton, Sports Fishery Advocate
Opinion, Seattle Post-Intelligencer - May 22, 2002
Recent news reports (The Associated Press, May 13) suggest that hatchery salmon are "too costly" and raise questions about the money spent to return hatchery adults to rivers and streams.
The real question is: "What price the Columbia hydro system?"
In the name of progress, such as cheap electricity, irrigation, transportation and development, 208 major dams were built in the Columbia Basin. The Columbia River drains an area the size of France and was the largest salmon producing river in the world. While not all the lethal impacts to fish were understood through the dam building era that started in the 1930s and ended in the 1970s, it was understood that salmon and steelhead runs would decline.
Acknowledgement of this decimation brought about laws and funding programs to mitigate for lost salmon productivity. These commitments are written into the operations of private and publicly owned dams for one reason: the citizens of the Northwestutterly refused to accept our region without salmon.
News reports about the high costs of hatchery fish are misleading and incomplete. The $80 million spent annually on hatcheries pales when compared to the regional economic benefits derived from the development of the basin. In Oregon alone sportfishers make four to eight trips at $103 a trip to catch one salmon. Each sport-caught hatchery fish gives back $412 to $824 to the communities through which they swim.
Dollars aside, communities were promised sustainable salmon populations when the dams were being built, and that promise is being broken. Maintaining hatcheries is a cheap, though unfulfilled, promise when compared to taking out dams and giving back habitat.
The news reports neglect to explain why hatchery fish don't return and thus are expensive to raise. A look at each hatchery reveals costs rising as the fish travel upstream. The problems created by each dam cause an increase in the cost of hatchery fish. For example, Idaho's McCall Hatchery is above eight federal dams. In 2001, the hatchery smolt mortalities were nearly 75 percent. Had these fish survived hydro passage, the cost per adult to the hatchery would have gone down from $289.31 per fish to $70.35.
In addition, more spring/summer wild fish die trying to navigate home above eight federal dams than are harvested by sport, commercial and tribal fishers combined. Cost comparisons ignore the varied purposes of hatcheries. Some are for preserving genetic resources. How much would the last Doug fir pine cone be worth? Some are for supplementing wild populations to complement expensive restoration efforts. Others fulfill promises to replace harvest, since salmon can't spawn in degraded river systems, reservoirs or past blockages.
Hatcheries are not a liability. The management of the river and the hydro system is the liability. Salmon are the asset.
If hatchery fish are a bad bargain then do we return to the original covenants from which hatcheries were derived? Or do we break the promises made to communities, citizens and tribes?
Hatchery returns are low for the same reasons wild fish are. The Columbia is generally operated like an industrial plant and rarely like a vibrant river capable of sustaining the largest salmon runs in the world.
We are culturally, environmentally and economically enriched in a Northwest where salmon still swim through our rivers.
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