The Cleanest Line


Photo: Matt Stoecker
Juvenile wild steelhead in a pristine Salmon River tributary stream, Idaho. DamNation collection. Photo: Matt Stoecker

Doubling Down on the Broken Promise of Fish Hatcheries

By Kurt Beardslee   |   Dec 12, 2016 December 12, 2016

You have to hand it to them. It was a wildly creative and successful bait and switch—perhaps the biggest con ever played on the once wild west. The terms were simple. The public would okay the construction of fish-killing dams and other habitat destroying activities. In exchange, the government would use taxpayer money to produce millions of hatchery salmon and steelhead to satisfy the angling and dining appetite of Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho.

For more than a century, the government has made good on its promise and has delivered hatchery fish by the tens of millions. In return, the good folks of the west granted the government the ability to dam, tame, damage and kill its mightiest waters and wild fish.

But there was a catch. Little did the public know that they were sold a bill of goods. It turns out that hatchery fish do not replace lost fish, they further their decline. So in a cruel irony, the government’s solution to wild fish loss has been a century-long ecological and genetic war on wild salmon and steelhead. To this day, a patchwork of 330 government-operated hatcheries continue to damage a shrinking network of wild salmon and steelhead populations, most of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The combination of hatcheries, dams, habitat destruction and the harvest these manufactured fish facilitate has proven to be a lethal cocktail for wild salmon and steelhead.

Photo: Matt Stoecker

Adult chinook salmon that swam hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean, meet a sad fate as they are diverted out of the Salmon River and into the concrete holding pens and killing tables of Idahos Sawtooth Hatchery. DamNation collection. Photo: Matt Stoecker

Hatchery salmon smash their heads against the concrete and steel walls of rearing tanks at the Sawtooth Hatchery, Idaho. DamNation collection. Photo: Matt Stoecker
Hatchery salmon smash their heads against the concrete and steel walls of rearing tanks at the Sawtooth Hatchery, Idaho. DamNation collection. Photo: Matt Stoecker

As a result, gone is the largest wild salmon run in the world that was once the lifeblood of the Columbia and Snake River watersheds. Gone are the legendary hundred-pound king salmon of the Elwha River. Gone are countless salmon rivers that carve up California’s jagged coast. Gone are the wild fish that were the fabric of Native American communities and cultures for millennia. And gone is the birthright of the west coast—wild fish that fueled local economies, ecosystems and our bodies.

And what’s the government’s response to this dramatic loss in historic abundance? Doubling down on their broken promise with another bill of goods: a proposal to list 23 hatchery salmon and steelhead populations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It is absurd that the federal government would protect fish manufactured in laboratories under the ESA—the pinnacle of wild species protection policy. It becomes even more ludicrous when you consider that these manufactured fish pose a serious genetic and ecological threat to their wild counterparts, which are already ESA-listed.

Photo: Matt Stoecker
Juvenile hatchery salmon are packed into concrete rearing pens at Idaho’s Sawtooth Hatchery. A sign at the visitor center acknowledged that the hatchery “was built to mitigate for expected salmon losses due to the four lower Snake River dams” in eastern Washington. DamNation collection. Photo: Matt Stoecker
Copco #1 Dam, and three others in California and Oregon, are planned for removal from the Klamath River opening up hundreds of miles of spawning and rearing habitat, improving water quality, and negating the need and high costs associated with the Iron Gate Fish Hatchery below the lower dam. DamNation collection. Photo: Matt Stoecker
Copco #1 Dam, and three others in California and Oregon, are planned for removal from the Klamath River opening up hundreds of miles of spawning and rearing habitat, improving water quality, and negating the need and high costs associated with the Iron Gate Fish Hatchery below the lower dam. DamNation collection. Photo: Matt Stoecker

A century ago, when the government promised manufactured fish as a cure-all for the loss of wild ones, the public did not know better. And frankly, the government didn’t know better either. They had zero evidence they could fulfill the bold promises they were making. They were gambling, pure and simple.

One hundred years later, we know better. We know that no amount of engineering is able to make a manufactured fish on par with a wild one. And we know that doubling down on hatchery fish that pose a genetic and ecological threat to wild ones is not a solution for restoring struggling wild stocks—it is a recipe for accelerated decline. The evidence is everywhere:

  • Puget Sound’s once prolific steelhead and king salmon populations have been reduced to three percent and ten percent, respectively, of their abundance in 1900.
  • Snake River salmon and steelhead populations have dropped 90 percent since dams and hatcheries were introduced on the Snake.
  • Twenty-eight Pacific Coast wild salmon and steelhead stocks are now listed as endangered or threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act.

The fish that were once the ecological, cultural and economic fabric of the west coast are now on the brink of extinction. At this critical time, we do not need to be doubling down on broken promises—especially ones that threaten to erase wild salmon and steelhead populations from the annals of history.

What we need is to double down on a conservation-minded approach rooted in science and grounded by nature. And we need to double down on our resolve to fight tooth and nail for these magnificent fish before it’s too late.

For the first time in a century, an adult chinook salmon launches past a rapid where Elwha Dam was recently removed. Dozens of miles of productive spawning and reading habitat now await upstream. DamNation collection. Photo: Matt Stoecker
For the first time in a century, an adult chinook salmon launches past a rapid where Elwha Dam was recently removed. Dozens of miles of productive spawning and reading habitat now await upstream. DamNation collection. Photo: Matt Stoecker
No hatchery needed. Wild steelhead return to the North Fork Umpqua River, Oregon. DamNation collection. Photo: Matt Stoecker
No hatchery needed. Wild steelhead return to the North Fork Umpqua River, Oregon. DamNation collection. Photo: Matt Stoecker

Raise Your Voice for Wild Salmon and Steelhead!

Please take action today and tell NOAA not to list these 23 hatchery steelhead and salmon programs under the Endangered Species ActThe deadline to comment is December 20, 2016.

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