Looking at hatcheries through the habitat lens

Published on Wed, Nov 18, 2009 by Billy Frank, Jr. Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

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If you caught a fish this fall, chances are you have a salmon hatchery to thank.

Salmon hatcheries provide most of the salmon for harvest in western Washington. That’s because wild salmon habitat has been degraded to the point that few wild runs can sustain much harvest.

The combined tribal, state and federal salmon hatchery system in western Washington is the largest in the world. This system keeps us fishermen on the water while we try to solve the problem of limited and damaged habitat for wild fish.

With our state co-managers, tribes have been on the cutting edge of enhancement science, making sure our efforts with salmon hatcheries are the best for salmon, fishermen and our communities.

The Squaxin Island Tribe recently finished a study into the habitat of one of their local creeks. It helped the tribe, state and a local enhancement group figure out a better way to build natural coho populations in the stream. The tribe will soon add 30,000 young coho from hatchery broodstock that will spawn naturally and boost the run.
Since 2005 the Lower Elwha Tribe has been holding on tight to a wild steelhead run on the Elwha River as preparation continues for removal of two salmon-blocking dams. By collecting and raising native steelhead in a hatchery, once the dams are gone, the steelhead will be situated to make a full recovery

Because of the unusually warm summer we had, the Tulalip Tribes had to take emergency steps to make sure enough salmon returned to the state’s Wallace River hatchery. Besides closing their fishery to ensure egg-take needs were met, fish unable to reach the hatchery were collected at the tribe’s downstream hatchery.

The Quileute Tribe saved more than 350,000 young Sol Duc River coho that were slated for extermination at a state hatchery. State budget cuts meant there wasn’t enough money to rear the fish, but the tribe stepped up and offered $31,000 to finish the job. Tribal staff worked extra hours to make the effort to ensure success.

State budget cuts that disproportionately target natural resources management – as well as the greater and greater demands being placed on hatcheries – mean we have to be smarter about how we spend on hatcheries. We must see hatchery production through the lens of habitat.

The original intent of hatcheries was to replace lost habitat, but we know that they don’t do that anymore. We need to restore and protect habitat to make sure we’re getting the most out of our hatcheries, while at the same time restoring weak wild stocks. After all, once hatchery salmon are released, they swim in the exact same habitat as their wild cousins.

We need hatcheries. I wish we didn’t, but we do. It doesn’t mean we’ve changed our view on salmon recovery. We still believe that the true measure of success will be when we return all salmon populations to levels that can again support sustainable harvest. Nothing short of that will do.