The Wild Fish Conservancy’s Kurt Beardslee recently told supporters that the group’s victory to block release of nearly a million state hatchery-produced steelhead in western Washington this fall was the “the biggest win of its type.”
While the group claims that hatchery salmon and steelhead production is undermining recovery of threatened wild stocks, WFC ignores the biggest factor in recovering salmon: habitat.
Beardslee tries to draw a line between watersheds with hatchery steelhead (in this case the Skagit) and those that don’t (the North Umpqua in Oregon). The point Beardslee is trying to make with the next two graphs is that if you release hatchery fish, it drives down the population of wild fish.
As much as Beardslee would like to ignore habitat and blame hatcheries for declining steehead populations, it is indeed the habitat that is most significant driver for salmon recovery.
If you compare the Skagit with the Umpqua in terms of their habitat, you start seeing some major differences (other than hatchery fish) that would explain why the Umpqua does so well.
These are maps that show potential salmon impacts based on how much impervious surface (like roads or parking lots) are in a local watershed.
You can see the Skagit is highly impacts in the lower reaches and near its mouth.
While the Umpqua:
There is nearly no impact at all, not just in the watershed itself, but along the river mouth.
This measurement, percentage of impervious surface leading to risk to salmon, is the same yardstick the tribes used in their recent State of Our Watershed report.
A statement from the late NWIFC chairmain Billy Frank Jr. sums it up well:
“We must stop the loss and damage of steelhead and salmon habitat in our watersheds,” Frank said. “The reasons that hatcheries were built in the first place have not changed, and have only gotten worse. We are losing salmon habitat faster than it can be restored and protected, and that trend is not improving.”
That is why lawsuits like the one filed by the Wild Fish Conservancy are so disappointing, Frank said.
Once a hatchery salmon is released, it has the same habitat needs as wild fish. Those needs include clean, cold water; access to and from the sea; and good spawning habitat.
“Lost and damaged habitat, not hatcheries or harvest, is what’s driving wild steelhead and salmon populations toward extinction,” Frank said. “The focus needs to be on fixing and protecting habitat, not fighting over hatcheries and the fish they produce. Climate change and exploding population growth are only making our habitat problems worse, which in turn makes hatcheries even more important for wild fish and all of us.”