Northwest Challenge: Trying to Make a 'wild' Salmon in a Plastic PailBy David Foster
Associated Press Writer
FALL CREEK, Ore. (AP)3/23/02 -- The forest is cloaked in mist, a chilling gray that drifts through the mossy tangle of limbs. It is barely dawn, but Ronald Yechout is wide awake, recounting the day he stumbled across the Fall Creek salmon massacre.
"Here," says Yechout, striding across a narrow bridge. One day in November 1998, Yechout stopped at Fall Creek while elk-hunting to admire the annual return of coho salmon from the ocean. "The river was full of fish, absolutely crawling with them," he says.
Yechout (pronounced YEK-it) was delighted. But then he heard thunks and thwacks coming from the nearby fish hatchery. Walking over, he found hatchery workers with baseball bats, clubbing thousands of salmon to death.
What's going on? he asked.
The answer puzzled him, then outraged him, then launched him on a crusade that, three years later, has helped throw the Northwest's salmon-recovery effort into turmoil.
Along this creek in the Oregon woods, scientists tried to create a salmon that equaled the wild fish made by nature - and then, deciding they had failed, they set about erasing their mistake, with bats.
Killing salmon to protect salmon? Yechout, standing by a creek now bereft of fish, thinks this is no way to save a species.
In the 1800s, when industrial society arrived in the Pacific Northwest, the salmon began to disappear. Traps and nets intercepted millions of fish. Dams blocked rivers. Log drives scoured streambeds clean of fish eggs.
Nobody wished ill for the fish. The five species of Pacific salmon and their cousin, the steelhead, were a vital part of the economy. Yet there was no political will to stop development or overfishing, so Northwesterners staked their hopes on hatcheries, which promised to restore the lost abundance with no need to preserve habitat.
Hatcheries were supposed to take advantage of salmon's nomadic life cycle, keeping them safe from predators as eggs and young fish, then letting them fend for themselves during their migration to the sea and back.
Oregon's first salmon hatchery was built in 1877, and many others followed. For decades, however, few of them worked. It wasn't until the 1960s that hatcheries regularly yielded enough returning adults to supply the eggs needed for the next generation.
Techniques gradually improved, and hatcheries now prop up salmon populations all around the Pacific Rim. Hatcheries in Canada, Japan, Russia and the United States released up to 6 billion salmon annually during the past decade, accounting for about 25 percent of all young salmon entering the North Pacific.
In the Northwest, total salmon numbers are still a fraction of historic levels, even when hatchery fish are counted, but hatcheries have been credited with stopping or reversing the decline in many areas.
While this has given fishermen something to catch, concern has grown that hatchery salmon are yet another deadly stress for wild salmon, which have continued to dwindle.
After months of being fed and protected from predators, young hatchery fish can be three times bigger than wild salmon when released, posing stiff competition for food. Crowds of hatchery fish can attract predators, which then gladly devour the wild fish, too.
"The hatchery's call is that we can circumvent nature and still have our fish," says Bill Bakke, founder of the Native Fish Society in Oregon and a critic of hatcheries. "The big 'but' is that you can't replace the natural ecosystem with industrial technology. Nature's goal is survival. Our goal is to produce a commodity."
A hatchery fish, he contends, is more farm animal than wild creature. From the beginning, hatchery managers couldn't resist the temptation to tweak their wild stock in pursuit of better fish. They trucked eggs hundreds of miles from one river to another. They collected eggs from only the biggest, or the brightest-colored, or the earliest-returning adults.
Such practices are frowned upon now, but Bakke says that even the most conscientious hatcheries still steer salmon from their wild state. He cites studies indicating that hatchery salmon are less efficient foragers, less territorial, less fearful of predators and less variable in size and shape. Some tend to seek food near the surface, waiting for pellets to fall from the sky as they did in the hatchery.
"Scientists have a name for it: domestication selection," Bakke says. "A hatchery will always change your salmon population so it doesn't do as well in a natural environment."
These are not new concerns. Over the past two decades, government biologists have reached consensus that naturally spawning stocks are essential to the salmon's survival, regardless of how hatchery fish are faring.
Since 1994, the federal government has listed 26 populations of West Coast salmon and steelhead as endangered or threatened. Coho salmon along the Oregon coast - the species produced at Fall Creek - were declared threatened in 1998, despite a vigorous hatchery program.
In 1951, the year before the Fall Creek hatchery opened, 80,000 wild coho swam up the Alsea River, which drains Fall Creek. By 1998, there were fewer than 300.
To protect the wild coho, commercial fishing off the coast was largely prohibited for both wild and hatchery salmon, which can be distinguished from each other only after they're caught. (Hatchery fish have a small fin clipped at the hatchery.)
With minimal demand for hatchery salmon, Oregon officials stopped production at Fall Creek. But what to do with hatchery coho already in the ocean, preparing to swim back to Fall Creek? Biologists didn't want those fish interbreeding with the few remaining wild coho or competing with them for spawning sites.
Fall Creek's wild coho return to spawn from December to February, a staggered migration that hedges the population's bets in case late-winter storms wash away some young salmon as they emerge from eggs in the streambed. The hatchery fish, by contrast, returned mostly in November.
So, in November 1998, hatchery workers trapped and clubbed about 6,600 hatchery-reared coho that swam up Fall Creek.
That's when Yechout, a bank manager in nearby Philomath, entered the scene. Appalled at the killing of what he considered a fine run of salmon, he returned with a video camera to record the slaughter. Then he took his footage on the road, lobbying legislators, Rotary clubs and any audience he thought might help revive the hatchery program.
Along the way, he found Wayne Giesy, a former state legislator and member of the Alsea Valley Alliance, a local property-rights group. The two men believe government biologists exaggerate the differences between hatchery and wild salmon.
"If fish can travel thousands of miles out to the ocean and then come back to the same river, ... they're pretty darn wild by the time they get back," Yechout says.
Giesy says straying hatchery fish have bred with salmon in streams for so long that nearly all supposedly wild salmon in the Northwest have some hatchery-born ancestors.
Their message - that there'd be no salmon crisis if hatchery fish were encouraged to spawn rather than whacked on the head - struck a nerve among rural residents weary of land-use restrictions designed to protect wild salmon.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a California-based property-rights group, helped the Alsea Valley Alliance press its case, and last September, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan handed the groups a victory.
Hogan threw out the coastal Oregon coho's threatened status, ruling that hatchery and wild coho were genetically the same. It was a narrow decision about one stock of fish, but the broader implications - that hatchery fish can be produced in abundance so there's no need to protect wild fish - created panic within the region's salmon-recovery effort.
After the judge's order, logging quickly resumed where it had been blocked by protections for the coho, only to be stopped again in December when environmentalists appealing Hogan's decision got a temporary stay. The case could drag on for years.
The National Marine Fisheries Services, meanwhile, was beset by lawsuits and petitions challenging other salmon listings. The agency has decided to take another look at 25 of the 26 West Coast salmon and steelhead populations considered threatened or endangered.
At Fall Creek, the last hatchery coho arrived in the fall of 1999 and were dispatched, again, by clubbing. Thirty-two wild fish were allowed to pass upstream to their spawning grounds.
In a low, boxy building a few yards from the stream, hatchery officials now ponder their next move. How much can you change a wild creature, they wonder, without destroying its essential wildness, its ability to survive and thrive on its own?
Biologists at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are proposing a research hatchery for Fall Creek, the first in Oregon. While other hatcheries produce salmon for harvest, this one would try to learn how wild and hatchery salmon can coexist.
One goal would be to raise hatchery salmon that act more wild, an infinitely tricky business. Among the proposals: Feed the young fish less, forcing them to forage. Paint concrete raceways in mottled colors, simulating a streambed. Put big, scary fish in a nearby tank to teach young salmon to fear predators.
Tim Schamber, hatchery manager at Fall Creek, says current wisdom stresses randomly selecting adult salmon to provide eggs, to maintain diversity. But salmon don't mate randomly. A female picks a male after careful inspection, checking out his hooked snout, breeding colors and ability to chase off competitors.
"We may learn there are some things we don't want to randomize," Schamber says. "There are things we still don't know."
Thinking like a salmon is no easy task.
"We can never mimic nature completely," Schamber says. For the salmon's sake, he hopes they can come close enough.
EDITOR'S NOTE - David Foster is the AP's Northwest regional reporter, based in Seattle.
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