July 29, 1996 in Nation/World

River Of No Return Best Hatched Plans Favorite Strategy For Replenishing Runs Is Expensive And Ineffective At Restoring The Most Threatened Snake River Salmon

Lynda Mapes Staff writer
 

In a remote Idaho town more than 500 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean sits a multimillion dollar offering to atone for our sins against the salmon.

The Clearwater Hatchery feels like a community college. Its 20-acre campus boasts a new office complex with visitors’ center; a living room with TV, VCR and lounge furniture; a kitchen, and a dormitory.

The $42 million hatchery opened in 1991 and costs $1 million a year to run. It’s the biggest and newest of 12 hatcheries intended to restore runs of fat, glorious chinook to the lower Snake River.

But very few of the baby salmon dumped into rivers from these hatcheries ever return as adults.

“There’s been a hell of a lot of money spent and relatively little results,” said Ed Crateau, coordinator of the lower Snake River hatchery program.

Despite their popularity, hatcheries are not helping our most threatened fish, the Snake River salmon. And the dreary truth is, some hatcheries may even hurt wild fish.

For generations, hatcheries were considered a painless way to replace salmon disappearing because of dams, development and overfishing.

Fish managers still allow fishermen to catch more than 90 percent of the salmon in some runs, assuming hatcheries can simply grow more.

“For the past 100 years, biologists have been telling the public that we can produce fish,” said Ray Hilborn, a fisheries professor at the University of Washington.

“The attitude was ‘Tell us how many fish you want and we’ll produce them.’ It was a gigantic sales campaign by a bunch of biologists and the politicians loved it.”

Some hatcheries, especially those below Bonneville Dam, successfully prop up fish runs.

But hatcheries farthest inland, such as those intended to rebuild Snake River runs, see the fewest adult fish come back. Those salmon have many more dams to cross, predators to evade, and miles of warm, slack water to endure.

Congress launched the so-called Lower Snake Compensation Plan in 1976. Since then, more than $177 million has been spent building the 12 hatcheries - including the Clearwater Hatchery - to restore runs hurt by the four lower Snake River dams.

Nearly $100 million more has gone into their operation and maintenance, paid by Bonneville Power Administration ratepayers and U.S. taxpayers.

State and federal taxpayers and private utility customers also pay for dozens of other hatcheries in the region.

In all, $537 million was spent on hatcheries throughout the Columbia Basin between 1980 and 1991, the federal General Accounting Office says.

That’s more than for any other salmon recovery effort in the basin.

HATCHERIES: A NORTHWEST ICON

Washington has more hatcheries than any other place in the world.

Nearly 100 hatcheries are run by the state, 31 by tribes, 10 by the feds, and 125 by various private organizations.

They produce an assortment of fish: chinook, steelhead, trout, bass.

The first hatcheries were built more than 100 years ago on the Columbia when salmon runs crashed because of overfishing to feed canneries.

Columbia River canneries organized the Oregon and Washington Fish Propagation Company in 1873, and by 1890 both states and the federal government were operating hatcheries in earnest.

By 1987 hatchery fish dominated adult fish runs in the Columbia Basin. They make up more than 95 percent of the coho, 70 percent of spring chinook, 80 percent of the summer chinook, more than 50 percent of the fall chinook, and 70 percent of the steelhead.

“Hatcheries are popular. There’s a lore here in the Northwest that you’re not really a grown-up unless you have your own hatchery and everybody wants one,” said William Stelle, regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Hatcheries are a Northwest icon. On the East Coast, school children visit the Bronx Zoo or the Empire State Building. Here, they visit hatcheries, to marvel at salmon.

The Issaquah Hatchery near Seattle is a big hit. It sponsors the Issaquah Salmon Days festival, and draws about 500,000 visitors a year, said Larry Peck, head of Washington state’s hatchery program.

Hatcheries get a bad rap, Peck said. Many do what they were designed to do very well, namely generate more fish so people can catch them.

A hatchery co-managed with the Squaxin Island Tribe near Olympia has restored a salmon run now healthy enough to sustain a successful tribal commercial fishery.

“Hatcheries are very much part of the community,” Peck said, “and it’s really easy for me to quantify what our money is spent on. You can see it. There’s a giving back to the schools, recreational fisheries, and sport fisheries.”

CHINOOK AREN’T COMING BACK

The Clearwater Hatchery just west of Orofino, Idaho, has 77,000 cubic feet of concrete tanks, called raceways, built outdoors for rearing baby salmon. It can crank out 3 million fish a year.

The hatchery is an engineering wonder, using water delivered through a pipe bored through 25-foot thick sections of Dworshak Dam about 250 feet below the reservoir’s surface.

The pipeline alone cost $15 million. But for all its engineering finesse, this hatchery is a failure at replicating nature.

So few adult salmon make it back to the hatchery that workers can’t get enough eggs to raise fry to fill the chinook raceways.They are bone dry, empty.

Normally 11 raceways should be full of 1.5 million baby chinook while a satellite facility cooks up another 1.5 million.

“They were empty last year and they will be empty this year too,” said manager Jerry McGehee. “The number of chinook we are raising is so small you could do it in a bathtub.”

About 27 people work at the hatchery, including summer help. With so few chinook around, many work on raising other fish, like steelhead, and on maintenance projects.

Across the street sprawls the Dworshak National Fish Hatchery, big as a brewery. It was built to make up for fish runs killed off by construction of Dworshak Dam.

The dam looms behind the hatchery, 717 feet high, the tallest of its type in the world, built with no fish passage.

Cause and effect are seldom so visible.

The hatchery mainly raises steelhead. It also is supposed to generate more than 9,000 adult chinook salmon a year to replace losses in the lower Snake River.

The hatchery is designed to raise 1.1 million baby chinook at a time. But so few adults came back last year, workers could only collect enough eggs to raise 50,000.

Only two of its 30 raceways are filled with chinook.

Farther inland the results are worse. The Sawtooth Hatchery, about 900 miles from the Pacific, cost $13.5 million to build and $741,000 to run last year alone.

Just 37 adult chinook returned to the hatchery near Stanley, Idaho, last year. The goal was 19,232.

So few adult fish come back to upriver hatcheries that managers often catch precious wild salmon for their eggs and sperm to keep hatcheries going.

Hatcheries that rely on wild fish should be closed or converted to research facilities, said a report from the National Research Council issued last November.

Instead, the 12 upriver hatcheries will keep going at a cost of $13 million this year.

THE PROBLEMS WITH HATCHERIES

Many scientists see fatal flaws with hatcheries.

Hatchery fish can be ill-suited to survive in a natural environment. They don’t know how to evade predators or find food.

They learn to associate a disturbance on the water’s surface with being fed pellets, only to find in the wild that when they rise to the surface they become seagull dinner.

They interbreed with wild fish, weakening superior wild genes. And hatchery fish compete with wild fish for food, and even prey on smaller wild baby salmon.

As wild fish die out, in part because of competition and inbreeding with hatchery fish, the number of wild genetic stocks dwindles.

Genetic diversity is key to salmon survival. As diversity declines, the likelihood of wholesale wipeout increases.

Worst of all, hatcheries can seduce us.

“Hatcheries make us feel good, like we are doing something right when we are not,” said James Karr, a biologist at the University of Washington. “They give us a false sense of security.

“They make power agencies like BPA feel good for contributing money for hatcheries and lull the public into thinking their resources are in good hands, and doing fine when in fact they are in decline.”

Some tribes cling to hatcheries as the only hope of having any fish in the river at all.

“As long as we don’t do enough in habitat or fixing the hydro-system, this is a way to make up for it,” said Phillip Roger, manager of fisheries for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The commission represents the Yakama, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Warm Springs tribes, whose right to harvest salmon is guaranteed in treaties signed more than 100 years ago with the U.S. government.

If there aren’t salmon to catch, the U.S. government reneges on its promise, Roger said.

The cultural significance of salmon to the tribes cannot be overstated, said Rick Taylor, spokesman for the commission. “To lose them would be like telling Catholics they can no longer have bread and wine.”

THE HATCHERY HABIT

Hatcheries also are a source of cash for state and tribal fisheries managers, who get a chunk of their budgets through federal hatchery programs. That’s one more disincentive to trim hatchery spending.

Hatchery money provides at least 25 percent of the fish and wildlife budget for Washington state, 11 percent in Idaho.

State and tribal fish managers set the priorities for the fish and wildlife program paid for by Bonneville - and hatcheries often are at the top of the list.

Those managers recommend spending 27 percent of the $94.7 million salmon budget for the coming year on hatchery programs.

That includes money to build the Yakima Hatchery near Cle Elum, Wash.

More than $40 million has been spent on the hatchery - and construction has just started. It was the first hatchery in Washington to undergo a formal environmental impact statement and other in-depth planning that took years and cost millions.

Construction will cost another $14 million.

The project was controversial from the start. It’s been opposed by irrigators, who fear losing water to the hatchery. Bonneville biologists also warned the hatchery may not rebuild runs as intended.

Called a supplementation project, the hatchery is supposed to rejuvenate, not replace wild fish runs. It is designed to bring up to 6,500 spring chinook a year to the Yakima River.

Scientists say the fish will be raised more like wild salmon. There will be fewer fish and more water in the raceways. The raceway floors will be covered with wood and gravel to make them seem more like river bottoms.

The fish also will be fed from below, rather than from above, so they will learn how to find food. Once the fish are big enough, they will held in ponds before being released.

That way, scientist hope, the fish will return to the area and spawn naturally.

This hatchery, they promise, will be different.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 6 Color photos

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. A DIFFERENT VIEW A dispute erupted last year when scientists checked to see if salmon were hurt by high levels of nitrogen gas in the river, a condition called gas bubble disease. The gas is driven into the river when water is spilled over dams to sweep fish downstream. Scientists examined fish with 10-power microscopes, far less powerful than the 100-power scopes used in 1994. With the weaker scopes, scientists found less damage. Some said that’s because spilling the water didn’t hurt the fish. Others said it was the difference of the microscopes. Scientists are still arguing over the best way to test for gas bubble disease.

2. EXPENSIVE RIDE Thousands of salmon are barged down the Columbia River each year in an effort to get them safely past the dams. Salmon also are transported by truck, at $350 a trip. The smallest load ever was six fish, taxied downriver in a pickup. “It cost $50 per fish,” said John McKern, a biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “But there might be endangered species in there, so that’s what we do.”

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. A DIFFERENT VIEW A dispute erupted last year when scientists checked to see if salmon were hurt by high levels of nitrogen gas in the river, a condition called gas bubble disease. The gas is driven into the river when water is spilled over dams to sweep fish downstream. Scientists examined fish with 10-power microscopes, far less powerful than the 100-power scopes used in 1994. With the weaker scopes, scientists found less damage. Some said that’s because spilling the water didn’t hurt the fish. Others said it was the difference of the microscopes. Scientists are still arguing over the best way to test for gas bubble disease.

2. EXPENSIVE RIDE Thousands of salmon are barged down the Columbia River each year in an effort to get them safely past the dams. Salmon also are transported by truck, at $350 a trip. The smallest load ever was six fish, taxied downriver in a pickup. “It cost $50 per fish,” said John McKern, a biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “But there might be endangered species in there, so that’s what we do.”


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