Salmon-Killing Video Throws Fish Program Into Question
Ron Yechout was elk hunting in the Coast Range a couple years ago when he came upon technicians at the Fall Creek hatchery bashing coho salmon in the head with baseball bats and stripping their blood-red eggs into 5-gallon buckets.
Incensed to learn that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife was killing thousands of hatchery fish and millions of their eggs so that about 100 threatened wild Alsea River coho could spawn without competition from their domesticated cousins, Yechout returned with his video camera.
Just as the Zapruder film fueled doubts over the official version of the assassination of President Kennedy, Yechout’s home video is spawning resistance to government efforts to save salmon as he shows it throughout the Willamette Valley to service clubs and Chamber of Commerce luncheons.
The video has found a receptive audience among people still smarting over logging cutbacks to protect the Northern spotted owl, and sparked a legislative effort to stop killing hatchery fish and a challenge of the Endangered Species Act by a property rights group.
“We can have a California condor raised in a laboratory and turn them loose and they are wild,” said Yechout, the manager of a bank in this small farming and logging town on the western edge of the Willamette Valley. “Yet we have a higher standard for fish. There is something wrong with that.”
Rob Gerig, pastor of Philomath Christian Assembly, agreed after seeing the video.
“I think it represents a small minority’s personal agenda to get back to a natural habitat,” Gerig said. “I would like to see us preserve what we have, but it gets to the point where it is extreme.”
Hatcheries have been part of the Pacific salmon equation since 1872, when the U.S. Fish Commission built the first one on the McCloud River in Northern California.
Since then more than 400 have been established from Alaska to California, turning out more than 325 million juvenile fish a year, according to figures compiled by Ecotrust, a nonprofit group that promotes ecologically sensitive businesses.
The biggest problem with hatcheries is that they make people think they can have salmon without worrying about wiping out their spawning habitat with dams, clear-cut logging and overgrazing, argues biologist Jim Lichatowich in his book, “Salmon Without Rivers.”
From the beginning, hatcheries ignored the life cycle that had made wild salmon thrive for 10,000 years since the last Ice Age. Eggs from one river routinely were shipped to spawn fish for another, sometimes as far away as New Zealand and Europe, with no regard for the adaptations the fish had evolved for dealing with the specific demands of their home rivers.
Gene pools were truncated by spawning a whole generation from the first few fish to come in.
Although hatcheries are good at producing fish for people to catch, they are not as good at producing fish to survive the rigors of life in the wild, said Reg Reisenbichler, a research fishery biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
To thrive in a hatchery, fish feed aggressively on the top of the water, where their food pellets are scattered. In the wild, that sort of behavior will get a smolt eaten by a kingfisher.
As a result, hatcheries genetically change the behavior of the fish, said Robin Waples, director of conservation biology at the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.
Hatcheries are vulnerable to a boom or bust atmosphere, he added.
Wild fish are spread out over time both as they migrate to the ocean and return to rivers to spawn, so if smolts run into a school of hungry mackerel or the eggs laid by spawners are washed away by flood, there are others behind them that may find more favorable conditions.
Hatcheries generally release smolts all at once, so a whole generation can be wiped out if they hit the ocean when food is scarce or predators are plentiful. Spawners come back in a bunch too, making them more vulnerable to the weather.
“In the long run, the only sure way we know of maintaining salmon into the future is maintaining the natural diversity we know has carried the species through long periods in the past,” Waples said.
Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, likens the decision to raise salmon in hatcheries to the federal government’s decision to put Indians on reservations and send their children to government schools where they were forced to wear uniforms and beaten for speaking their native language.
Just as tribes are reaching back to their ancient cultures while living in the modern world, tribal fisheries programs are putting more natural factors into hatcheries to rebuild extinct or dwindling salmon runs.
On the Hood River, which runs off towering Mt. Hood into the Columbia, the Confederated tribes of the Warm Springs have joined with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to try to rebuild dwindling salmon and steelhead runs by using hatcheries to boost wild runs.
Though still considered experimental by government agencies, tribal fisheries programs see supplementation as a way to combine the higher survival rates of young fish in hatcheries with habitat restoration to bring back more fish for spiritual and economic use.
“In order to do that, we feel we’ve got to imitate Mother Nature the best we can,” said Mick Jennings, a former state fisheries biologist now working for the Warm Springs tribes. “These fish have adapted over thousands of years on their own. The problems in this basin are man-caused activities.”
They haven’t been doing it long enough to see any increase in returning adults, but they have doubled the proportion of young fish reaching the mouth of the Hood River, Jennings said.
At Fall Creek hatchery in Oregon’s Coast Range, the coho were bred since the 1950s for fishermen to catch in the ocean. After ocean coho seasons were essentially eliminated in 1993 to protect dwindling wild stocks, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission decided to shut down Fall Creek’s coho program, said Doug DeHart, fisheries chief of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In an affidavit for a lawsuit challenging the decision, DeHart said smolt survival was seriously declining, from 5% in the 1970s to 0.5% in recent years. As a mix of stocks taken from up and down the coast and the lower Columbia River, they lacked the local adaptations evolved for the Alsea River by wild coho.
Though Yechout complains that the decision was made without involving the public, public hearings were held and the 1999 Legislature signed off, DeHart said.
DeHart’s explanations didn’t dissuade two state Republican representatives incensed by Yechout’s video from crafting a bill that would bar the state from killing hatchery fish and create a panel of experts to review the science.
“It just doesn’t make sense to kill an endangered species when we’re trying to keep them alive,” said state Rep. Jeff Kropf, who with state Rep. Betsy Close plans to introduce the bill in the 2001 Legislature. “It’s a massive departure from the state’s previous policy of using hatcheries to augment the sportfishing and commercial salmon fishing industries.”
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a property rights organization, lost attempts to stop killing the Fall Creek hatchery coho, but has a lawsuit arguing that the Endangered Species Act protects the hatchery coho as well as wild.
“Now because of the Ron Yechout video, we know why salmon are dying,” said foundation attorney Russell Brooks. “The government is killing them.
“That allows them to continue to list coho salmon as a threatened species, which in turn allows them to continue to regulate. In that regulation they control land use and resources. That’s what it is, is a land grab.”
An advisor to the Pacific Legal Foundation, retired Oregon State University fisheries professor Jim Lannan finds the science favoring wild fish over hatchery fish to be weak. He points out that the two strongest wild runs of coho in Oregon are on rivers where salmon-ranching operations went bust, leaving their domesticated stock to breed with wild fish.
By wiping out the hatchery run on the Alsea, the state actually eliminated a valuable genetic resource, he added.
“All I want to see is some intellectual honesty brought into the argument and see what the public wants,” Lannan said. “If they want culture-based fisheries so they can have the kind of robust offshore fisheries they had several years ago, that’s fine. Or if they want to treat salmon like a museum piece, that’s fine too.”