People on the West Coast have counted on fish hatcheries for more than a century to help rebuild populations of salmon and steelhead decimated by overfishing, logging, mining, agriculture and hydroelectric dams, and bring them to a level where government would no longer need to regulate fisheries.
But hatcheries have thus far failed to resurrect wild fish runs. Evidence showing artificial breeding makes for weaker fish has mounted. And despite billions spent on significant habitat improvements for wild fish in recent decades, hatchery fish have come to dominate rivers.
Critics say overreliance on costly breeding programs has led to a massive influx of artificially hatched salmon, masking the fact that wild populations are barely hanging on and nowhere close to being recovered. Recently touted record runs were made up mostly of hatchery fish, and scientists are concerned that hatchery fish could completely replace wild fish — though state and federal officials say they are working to address the problem.
Now, the practice of populating rivers with hatchery fish rather than making greater efforts to restore wild runs is facing a battery of court challenges in Oregon, California and Washington state.
The disputes illustrate a crucial tension in the Pacific Northwest, where salmon and steelhead are iconic fish — of enormous cultural and nutritional significance to tribes, job creators for commercial fishermen and big draws for recreational anglers.
Balancing risks and promises
“We as a society have made conscious decisions to significantly alter habitat, and we also made commitments to people who utilize fish … that fish will be available,” said Stuart Ellis, a biologist at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “To the extent that hatchery programs may pose some sort of risk to remaining natural populations, you have to balance those risks with the promises that were made.”
With 13 species of salmon and steelhead listed as endangered or threatened in the Columbia River basin, the government also has a legal obligation to restore wild runs. Court battles on just how to do that have been going on for years.
Environmentalists and many scientists argue that the only way to bring back wild fish is to remove dams that produce the region’s cheap power, but the government has ruled that out. The hatchery lawsuits are trying a different tack.
Courts have ordered changes
Last month, an Oregon judge ordered officials to do more to ensure hatchery fish do not stray into wild fish habitat on the Sandy River, a Columbia River tributary. Lawsuits have been filed to limit or block the release of hatchery-raised fish into Oregon’s McKenzie River and Washington’s Elwha River.
In California, a lawsuit resulted in a settlement requiring a hatchery to institute a genetic management plan to better protect wild salmon from hatchery fish. Another suit is pending.
The effect of the lawsuits on other operations is unknown, but environmental groups say the Sandy River ruling sets an important precedent.
Courts could mandate that hatcheries release fewer artificially bred fish into rivers and erect stronger barriers separating wild from hatchery stocks, said Bill Bakke of the Portland-based Native Fish Society, which filed the Sandy River suit. Such changes, he said, could revitalize wild fish — and benefit fisheries.
“We need to maintain healthy and abundant wild populations not only for their own sake, but to be a supply of fish for hatchery production and to keep hatchery programs cost effective,” Bakke said.