As a matter of pure scientific fact, which any sincere naturalist will confirm ... hatcheries have been found out to be merely rackets.”
—Zane Grey, in a letter to the News-Review, Roseburg, Oregon, 1938
Forty years ago, I wrote a story about hatchery-raised steelhead for Sports Illustrated. Then as now, dams and logging create silted-up spawning beds and blocked small streams. Salmon and trout died because the water temperatures were driven to intolerable heights, though so-called “trash fish” thrived.
In 1960, the manufacture of fish-meal pellets as feed made it possible for hatcheries to grow tens of millions of fingerlings and smolts for release into creeks and rivers, presumably to compensate for depleted runs of wild salmon and steelhead. There were spectacular numerical successes at first, including on my home river, Oregon’s justly famed North Umpqua, with its 30 miles of fly-fishing-only water.
In the mid-1960s, Umpqua summer steelhead runs averaged between 2,000 and 3,000 fish, and by the early ’70s, thanks to hatchery-bred smolts, summer runs had increased to more than 15,000 fish. But those increases have long since disappeared, as have short-lived gains in many other rivers.
People whose livelihoods depend upon building and sustaining hatcheries continue to argue for their importance, but the years of genetic analysis conducted since 1976 reach troubling conclusions. At all stages of life, from fresh water out to the ocean and back, hatchery fish compete with wild fish for space and food, to the clear detriment of the wild fish. Studies have conclusively proved that even when hatchery steelhead survive to spawn in the wild, their offspring have little success at reproducing.
Then there’s fish behavior. Through half a century of fly-fishing the North Umpqua, I’ve seen hundreds of both wild and hatchery steelhead up close. Wild fish tend to fight with the remarkable strength developed through their difficult natural lives. Hatched in streams, they face a vigorous struggle from the very beginning. Less than an inch long when they first emerge from gravel, they must find food and escape the predation of other fish, birds and mammals. When their hatchery cousins survive to be hooked and landed — and they’re easily identifiable by either clipped fins or hatchery-induced deformities — they provide about as much excitement as cranking in the dead weight of a waterlogged boot.
But the critical issue isn’t how much fun a recreational angler has during a day on the river. What matters is the natural health of rivers, including the perpetuation of their native fish. Long ago, Aldo Leopold concluded that throwing an intricate river system out of natural balance places that system in danger. He pointed out that planting fish has nothing to do with identifying and solving the specific problems that led to the presumed need to plant them, and he believed that far more good could be accomplished by doing away with hatcheries and investing in habitat protection and restoration instead.
I think he’s right, and I think it can be done.
When I began fishing the North Umpqua, Frank Moore, now a celebrated 93-year-old Oregon conservationist, produced Pass Creek, a short film that documented the irresponsible logging practices that were occurring throughout the river’s vast watershed. Frank traveled to anywhere that people were willing to watch the film. Pass Creek helped eliminate destructive logging, and that helped save wild fish.
After inhibiting fish runs for 106 years, and after much controversy, Gold Ray Dam on Oregon’s Rogue River was removed in 2010. That also helped wild fish. In 2014, with the backing of the National Park Service, the 210-foot-high Glines Canyon dam in northwestern Washington was removed, and that also helped wild fish.
For years, Klamath River Basin farmers, ranchers and salmon-dependent Indian tribes have been fighting in court over water rights. The farmers and ranchers want reservoir water to irrigate 170,000 acres of arid land; the tribes want their traditional rights to harvest salmon protected. Now that the tribes have finally been granted senior water rights, preparations are underway to begin dismantling four huge dams on the 236-mile Klamath. As California Gov. Jerry Brown put it, “This is a good exercise of humankind correcting some of the mistakes that it’s made in the past.”
With dams coming down, why not hatcheries? There are plans to convert the Butte Falls Hatchery near the Rogue River into a facility for growing shitake mushrooms and wasabi. That’s a good start. Converting structures into something useful always makes more sense than tearing them down. Before it’s too late, let’s make every possible effort to get our wild rivers back and protect the wild fish that live in them.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.