the film
Commentaries and editorials

Hatcheries Try to Get Natural

by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, May 22, 2004

ROZA DAM, Yakima County - One by one, every spring chinook salmon bound for the upper Yakima River must pass through a Winter Olympics-style luge.

Situated inside a building on the receiving end of a fish ladder near Yakima, the chute leads from a mechanized holding pen down into a network of still more chutes. On the upper end, biologist Mark Johnston checks each fish for a telltale adipose fin and calls out the result.

"Wild. Wild. Hatchery. Wild..."

Depending on Johnston's call (adipose fins are clipped on hatchery-raised fish), an operator at the bottom of the chute triggers a hydraulic flap diverting each fish to the most appropriate path. One leads to a smaller holding pen. Another shoots them toward a truck bound for a state-of-the-art hatchery an hour away in Cle Elum. Door No. 3 drops the fish into the river above the dam, free to continue its single-minded quest to spawn in the wild.

Such begins the process of a new kind of salmon hatchery a model that federal fishery managers hope to see duplicated across the Pacific Northwest.

By carefully culling wild fish to spawn the next generation at the Cle Elum hatchery, then rearing the fish in a way that mimics the natural environment as closely as possible, Yakama Nation fishery managers hope to jump-start a population that may someday regenerate on its own in the wild.

"That's the right path for hatcheries," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

While the Yakama program represents the cutting edge of hatchery science, even here it's unclear whether it will restore wild salmon over the long term.

The Bush administration is about to lend additional weight to the role of hatcheries in rebuilding wild runs by equating wild salmon to their hatchery-raised cousins when deciding whether a stock should be protected by the Endangered Species Act. The policy change, leaked to the press last month but due to be formally released Friday, fundamentally shifts how "wild" creatures are viewed.

Hatcheries are as embedded in the Northwest environment as the dams they were meant to offset.

"It's safe to say hatcheries are here to stay," said Larry Cassidy, chairman of the U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Commission.

David Fast, research manager for the Yakama Nation's fisheries program, wishes it didn't have to come to this. But tribal representatives believe the hatchery boost is necessary to revive a run of spring chinook that has dwindled from more than a half-million returning adults a century ago to fewer than 20,000 these days.

The Yakima River is a shadow of its former self, rejiggered to the point where its last remaining fish runs are supported by the hand of man. Now a patchwork of dikes, canals and channelized tributaries, the run of spring chinook salmon is managed with clockwork efficiency.

It has to be.

In a basin that receives only 6 to 7 inches of rain a year, the canals make it possible to support the region's lucrative agriculture industry. Removing the canals to restore native fish isn't realistic, Fast said.

"If it weren't for that, there would be nothing here but scrub and sagebrush," Fast said. "That's why the old saying is: 'Whiskey's for drinking; water's for fighting."

The tribe's current hatchery system, funded by $27 million in electricity rates collected by the Bonneville Power Administration, is designed and operated for the primary purpose of boosting the number of fish capable of meeting the single overriding measure of a fish's fitness: the ability to pass on its genes.

That's why the tribe has tried to simulate nature as closely as possible, although it's still too early to gauge the success of hatchery-raised adults reproducing on their own.

A natural-looking hatchery

In 1997, the tribe used the BPA money to build a state-of-the-art hatchery at Cle Elum. They painted raceways in camouflage, to cue a darker coloration for the young fry. They added floating covers to simulate forest-shaded pools. They placed discarded Christmas trees on the concrete bottom, and they built underwater feeders, to get fish more accustomed to the natural environment.

From the hatchery itself, the tribe trucks the smolts to three "acclimation sites" located within a 25-mile radius at Clark Flats, Jack Creek and Easton. After a two-week acclimation period, the smolts are allowed to leave for the ocean on their own volition, imprinted to the stream to which they will return as adults ready to spawn.

Five years into the experiment, Fast said, biologists found no difference in survival between smolts raised in a standard hatchery environment and those in what they termed a "seminatural treatment."

"The most important thing is the broodstock," Fast said.

That's where Mark Johnston comes in.

Johnston, the tribe's lead biologist at Roza Dam, works with other tribal employees to sort the adults arriving back to the Yakima River after three to five years in the ocean.

Johnston's goal is to cull a small proportion of the wild fish a total of 557 from this year's run of native Yakima River spring chinook to use as brood stock for the hatchery in Cle Elum. Rather than taking the first 557 fish that show up at the start of the spring chinook run in early April, traditional practice for standard production hatcheries, Johnston is much more patient. He pulls out a few wild fish every week, at a rate that corresponds to the arrival of the whole run between April and September.

Johnston and colleagues aren't looking for perfect fish, but a genetically representative sample of the wild run no matter how beat-up the fish might look.

"We've taken fish that have had their whole jaw taken off," Fast said.

Every day, Johnston and other tribal workers divert an additional sampling of wild and hatchery-raised fish to monitor the run's ability to reproduce itself in the wild.

"Anybody can raise baby fish they do it in elementary schools," Johnston said. "We want to know what the adults are doing."

Each of the adults spawned in the Cle Elum hatchery has been marked as smolts with a benign gel and wire tag. Depending on the color of the gel and the placement of the tag, biologists can determine each fish's age, raceway and acclimation site of origin.

Although tribal officials are optimistic that they've hit upon a winning formula, problems have cropped up even here. Cle Elum hatchery manager Charles Strom noted that the hatchery produced a higher percentage of "precocial males," those that return too early to spawn effectively, than the wild population.

Tribal members know they are operating on the cutting edge of hatchery science, and they're determined to make the necessary adjustments until they get it right.

"Hatcheries will probably have to be around for a long time," Fast said.


Previously: The Bush administration said it will comply with a court ruling rebuking the National Marine Fisheries Service for lumping a population of hatchery and wild salmon together as one species, then giving Endangered Species Act protection only to the wild fish.

What's new: The administration is poised to release a new policy that will equate wild fish with their hatchery-raised cousins.

What's next: The policy is due to be released Friday and could encourage hatchery programs such as the one operated by the Yakama Nation. It represents a model for reforming a system in place for more than a century.

Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Hatcheries Try to Get Natural
The Columbian, May 22, 2004

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation