Tribe Creates Plan to Help
by Robert McClure
PUYALLUP -- In an old rhubarb field tucked behind a farmhouse, a smiling man in rain gear stands between two massive holes in the ground. One is lined with concrete. The other is covered in fist-sized rocks and cedar stumps hauled in by earth movers.
Symbolically at least, Puyallup Indian Tribe fisheries biologist Blake Smith is positioned between the past and the future of salmon hatcheries.
The hole with the stumps and rocks soon will be brimming with baby salmon, otters, plants, birds and bugs. While the concrete pond echoes past ways of hatcheries that helped batter the Pacific Northwest's wild salmon runs, this other pond represents new hope.
Here the Puyallups, mirroring a growing trend, want to teach hatchery-bred fish to act more like wild fish. No old-style fish factory, this hatchery will function more like a tributary to Clarks Creek next door.
When it opens next month, this hatchery will train young fish to flee predators. It will even change their color to better camouflage them. They'll learn how to thrive outside the shelter of the hatchery, the tribe hopes.
"You get a little miniecosystem in there," Smith said. "Better survival in the wild -- that's the ultimate goal."
But this hopeful scene masks a pitched battle brewing across the region.
Property rights advocates, angered by Endangered Species Act-inspired building restrictions, say that since salmon can be raised in hatcheries, why bother protecting their wild cousins?
Opposing them are environmentalists who liken hatchery fish to zoo animals, and scientists who say hatchery fish don't seem to cut it, reproductively speaking.
It's all supposed to come to a head this spring as the National Marine Fisheries Service, spurred by a court ruling favoring property rights advocates, tries to settle the disagreement. More litigation is likely, both sides say.
Last week, a group of prominent independent scientists said in a leading science journal that the fisheries service should resist the temptation to count hatchery-bred fish toward rebuilding wild stocks.
"What we say, explicitly and bluntly, is that you don't count hatchery fish with wild fish," said Robert Paine, a University of Washington marine ecologist and chairman of the six-member science panel.
But Russ Brooks, a lawyer representing construction, farming and other business interests, responds that the government "has to properly utilize hatchery salmon to the greatest extent possible to facilitate the recovery of salmon on the West Coast."
Instead, he claims the government has "taken the position that hatchery salmon are bad. They're ruining the natural ecosystem, so we have to ignore them."
Legacy of hatcheries
Salmon hatcheries have been a part of the Northwest since the late 1870s, when cannery owners built one on Oregon's Clackamas River. They found they could coax more fish out of the same river, or so it seemed.
In ensuing decades, a host of environmental insults ruined huge stretches of rivers where salmon reproduce. Dams walled them off. Trees were cut, causing waterways to overheat and mudslides to soil the water. Cities were built, shedding toxic pollutants after every big rainstorm. The list goes on.
Plus, for decades salmon were fished like mad -- "harvested," as modern-day biologists say.
How can we keep salmon around? The traditional answer has been to raise more fish in hatcheries. It's superefficient. Fertilized eggs are protected from floods, droughts, predators and other messy vagaries of nature that doom many wild eggs. So, fish for fish, many more little salmon can be produced.
But even as early as the 1950s, national studies began to suggest that fish raised in hatcheries are generally not as fit as their wild counterparts. Northwest scientists later found the same thing.
"The people of the region made a bargain 120-some-odd years ago to trade habitat and effective harvest management for artificial propagation," said Jim Lichatowich, author of the seminal book "Salmon Without Rivers." "Hatcheries didn't live up to their end of the bargain."
While hatcheries produced lots of fish, those salmon frequently interfered with wild fish doing their thing. Darwin's rules of natural selection were skewed.
Oregon coastal coho salmon, for example, lay eggs in stream-bottom gravel, mostly in December and January, after the heaviest rains have passed and floodwaters aren't churning creeks and rivers.
But a few wild fish have always returned early and laid eggs in November, hoping for the best. Because it seemed the most convenient and efficient thing to do, hatchery managers grabbed those fish to get eggs and milt.
Soon, the Oregon hatchery fish were programmed to return in November. It didn't matter that that's a lousy time to lay their eggs, because humans would always gather a few, and a few is all you need to raise a gazillion fish.
But this meant the progeny of the hatchery fish were released into the stream a month or two earlier than the little wild salmon could hatch.
By the time the wild baby fish showed up, the already-larger young hatchery salmon chased them out of the prime areas for young fish to grow. Wild fish became much less common.
The problem is by and large hatchery-bred fish don't do as well at reproducing over successive generations in the wild, many studies have shown.
The reasons remain unclear, but at least some of the reason appears to be genetic, scientists say.
And there are other problems with raising fish in big, concrete pools. They come out unnaturally light-colored, making them easily seen and gobbled by bigger fish. When a figure appears overhead, hatchery fish swim to the surface because they think it's a hatchery employee throwing them food -- exactly the wrong response in the wild, when the figure might be a hungry bird.
At a traditional hatchery run by the Puyallup Tribe, "the fish swim right up to you, like golden retrievers," Smith said.
Some of the hatcheries' shortcomings could be fixed by running them differently.
In the case of the Oregon coho, hatchery managers could simply make sure they got eggs and milt from fish that return in December and January, as well as those that spawn in November.
"The fisheries-science world spent the last two decades establishing that hatcheries can cause problems for wild runs," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "The cutting edge of the new science is to figure out to what extent those problems can be avoided."
Federal decision overdue
This week, the fisheries service is missing the second deadline for announcing how it will treat hatchery fish in figuring compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
It stems from a court case in which Brooks, the property-rights lawyer, challenged the agency's decision to protect the Oregon coho under the federal law -- but only the wild fish.
"The NMFS ... decision creates the unusual circumstance of two genetically identical coho salmon swimming side-by-side in the same stream, but only one receives protection while the other does not," U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Eugene, Ore., ruled in 2001. "The distinction is arbitrary."
Emboldened by the ruling, which recently was upheld on appeal, property-rights groups petitioned the fisheries service to undo protections for a number of salmon runs.
Environmentalists responded by asking the agency to protect wild fish.
That led to the fisheries service undertaking a wholesale rewrite of its policy.
Virtually no one is talking about getting rid of hatcheries.
Consider places such as the Lower Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula, where dams have cut off the vast majority of salmon-spawning habitat. Keeping the stock alive until the dams can be removed is a hatchery run by the Lower Elwha Klallum Tribe.
"What do you do with salmon that are in the emergency room, where the habitat is either lost or badly broken ... and they're ready to wink out?" asked Lohn, of the fisheries service.
"We're trying to develop a way that acknowledges the risks and uncertainties of the hatcheries, and on the other hand acknowledges that we must continue to use them, especially in dire circumstances."
The Puyallup Tribe's experiment comes out on the other side of the ledger. The idea is to rebuild the chinook salmon run of the Puyallup River. The concrete ponds are needed to keep the fish catchable for a few weeks so small fins can be clipped off.
The ways the natural pond will help are myriad, its builders believe.
For instance, hatchery fish raised in traditional concrete raceways are easy pickings when they are released into a stream, because they take on the light color of the hatchery surroundings. It doesn't fade for hours, and in the meantime, many young fish are gobbled.
The new, natural-looking pool will give the fish a darker color. And it will be open to birds and otters that will try to catch the young salmon. Those that aren't killed will be more fit, the Puyallups believe.
"They'll learn to avoid those things -- just like in the wild," said Smith, the tribal biologist.
"They'll be a lot smarter -- the ones that survive."
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs