Salmon hatcheries are under attack by people with very short memories. They have forgotten why many hatcheries were built in the first place.
Most were built to make up for lost natural salmon production caused by habitat damage and destruction. Today, more than half of the chinook and coho we harvest are hatchery fish. That’s a direct reflection of the huge amount of natural salmon production we have lost. We continue to lose more every day.
I think hatcheries are a necessary tool that we can use to help recover wild salmon while also providing limited harvest opportunities. I wish we didn’t need hatcheries. I wish that salmon habitat in our rivers could produce abundant wild stocks, but it can’t.
In response to declining wild salmon runs, we have cut harvest to the point that more reductions will not contribute to salmon recovery. That’s because there isn’t enough good salmon habitat left to support natural salmon production.
Do hatcheries threaten wild salmon stocks? Of course there are risks associated with hatchery programs. There is risk that the program might fail; risk that hatchery salmon will compete with wild salmon for food and space in our rivers; and risk that hatchery fish might affect wild salmon if they interbreed. These are all risks we must measure and balance, and under the science-driven Hatchery Reform effort of the past 12 years we have done just that.
We also need to weigh the risk to wild salmon from lack of habitat. Hatcheries are not a substitute for good salmon spawning and rearing habitat. Hatchery salmon were never intended to replace naturally spawning salmon. But that’s what’s happening after more than a century of habitat degradation. We’ve become dependent on hatcheries and the fish they produce because we are losing the battle to recover naturally spawning salmon and their habitat.
Another risk we must measure is the risk to our treaty rights. We tribes depend on hatcheries to support our treaty fishing rights, to provide salmon for our tables, our cultures and our economies.
All fishermen – Indian and non-Indian – rely on hatcheries, because to some extent, hatcheries support all fisheries. Some facilities produce fish for harvest, which helps reduce fishing pressure on naturally spawning salmon. Others are dedicated nurseries where weak wild stocks and their offspring are protected from disappearing altogether.
White River chinook wouldn’t be here today if not for hatcheries. By 1977, fish-blocking dams and other habitat losses resulted in only 66 adult chinook returning to the river. An egg bank was created that year to save White River spring chinook from extinction.
We were almost too late. In 1986 just six adults returned, but today those fish have a future.
In 1989 the Muckleshoot Tribe’s White River Hatchery opened to protect, preserve and restore those spring chinook. Returns today number in the thousands every year. It’s a direct result of good hatchery management practices, habitat improvements in the upper watershed and cooperation by the tribes, state and others.
Don’t get me wrong. Tribes don’t prefer to rely on hatcheries for the salmon that are the foundation of our cultures and treaty rights. Hatcheries are not a long-term solution to salmon recovery. But when they are managed as part of a river’s ecosystem and are combined with conservative fisheries and habitat improvements, they can be effective tools that provide fishing opportunities for everyone.
But we can’t forget that the true path to salmon recovery requires that we protect and repair habitat. It always has, because habitat is the key to salmon recovery.
Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
For more information, contact: Tony Meyer or Emmett O’Connell, NWIFC, (360) 438-1181