Everything we’re doing to replace vanishing salmon might be killing them off faster

More from the series

20 years later, Idaho's salmon are still in danger of disappearing forever

The salmon of the Northwest are the stuff of legends. Pioneers talked of rivers so thick that they were tempted to cross on the backs of the fish. But times have changed, the fish's numbers have plunged, and 13 species were placed on the endangered species list by 1995. Climate change and our network of hydropower dams have helped thwart attempts so far to find a sustainable solution. And it's possible some of our strategies - including our reliance on hatcheries - have backfired.

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As once-uncountable Northwest salmon stocks have dwindled, humans have tried a number of remedies to bolster or replace the disappearing fish.

We’ve caught them at dams and trucked and barged them past obstacles. When the fish return home, we strip them of their eggs, fertilize them in buckets and grow new generations of baby salmon in hatchery raceways.

But what if humans have it all wrong?

What if those efforts are not just failing to work, but actually reducing the salmon’s odds of survival? What if hatchery fish do more than just dilute the genetic fitness of the wild, native salmon that evolved to live and spawn in particular conditions in specific stretches of individual streams?

What if the billions of human-raised fish rob food from native fish competing in the limited waters of damaged ecosystems?

What if by focusing on creating more fish for people to catch and eat, we’ve simply pushed the weakened salmon closer to extinction?

That’s the conclusion of biologists Rick Williams and Jim Lichatowich, who argue that our reliance on hatcheries, our indiscriminate catch techniques, and our destruction and fragmentation of habitat are at the root of the fish’s struggles. The secret to saving the resilient, adaptable salmon might be simply getting out of their way.

“We’ve lost faith in nature,” said Williams. “Because of our long reliance on substitute nature, we’ve lost faith in salmon to reproduce itself in quality habitat.”

Williams, Lichatowich and their co-authors challenge the basis of salmon management for the past century. They argue that the mistake is treating salmon as an industrial commodity whose supply can be managed to meet demand. To save salmon we need to protect and connect the ecosystems, they say — the places in which the salmon have adapted to spawn and survive.

Annually, states, federal agencies, tribes and contractors release 143 million salmon and steelhead juveniles raised in artificial, industrial hatcheries. Despite more than a decade of ideal conditions in the Pacific Ocean and thousands of miles of nearly pristine spawning habitat in places like Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, most specific runs of wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin have not been able to replace themselves.

Given such evidence, the biologists argue, it’s time salmon managers and dam operators take a new approach.

Idaho’s trophy imperiled

The journey of Idaho’s wild, trophy-sized steelhead makes Williams’ and Lichatowich’s case.

Idaho’s chinook and sockeye salmon enter the Pacific and turn north, swimming in schools to Alaska and back. But the steelhead, which travel in smaller groups, go 4,000 miles to the coasts of Japan and Russia, where they mix with salmon from that region’s rivers and hatcheries.

The larger B-run steelhead, as they are called, grow to more than 30 pounds. They are the most coveted prize of sport anglers and an important supplier of special oils to Northwest Indian tribes. They begin their lives in the gravel of tributaries of the Salmon and Clearwater rivers, the remnant of a great run of giant steelhead that, unlike chinook and sockeye salmon, could spawn in Idaho and return to the Pacific several times before dying.

After two or three years in the Pacific, these steelhead are now beginning their annual run up the Columbia River. But state fisheries officials say this year will be the worst steelhead returns to the Columbia in half a century. So far, only about a third of the average run — about 97,100 steelhead — have been counted at Bonneville Dam, the first the fish reach on their trip. Only 29,000 of them were naturally spawned.

And none of those yet include the B-run steelhead, of which only 1,100 wild fish (and another 6,200 raised in hatcheries) were predicted to arrive. The agencies have been downgrading their estimates further, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has told anglers to release all steelhead this season for the first time since 1995.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographers blame the situation on the unprecedented warm water in the Pacific from 2014 through early 2016 they called the “blob.” They say ocean conditions for salmon off the Columbia, warm and lacking in nutrient-rich food, are currently among the worst recorded.

North Pacific problem

Across the Pacific Rim, the number of hatchery-raised salmon released into the Pacific has risen since 1970 from 500 million to more than 5 billion fish. Most of these are chum and pink salmon from Hokkaido, Japan; Southeast Alaska; and Sakhalin Island, Russia. Among other threats, they can spread disease into the wild salmon population.

Hatchery fish — which are called “wild” in the grocery store — are allowed to interbreed with the wild salmon. That reduces the ability of their offspring to adapt and survive, according to the Wild Salmon Center, an international group based in Portland. Wild salmon and their ecosystems are more resilient. They can replace themselves at twice the rate of hatchery fish, thanks to the power of natural selection.

Japan and Russia have allowed their wild fish to disappear to a much greater extent than the U.S., and in some cases don’t even count the wild salmon anymore. Those countries are now forced to release billions of smolts into the Pacific because of the low productivity of the hatchery fish.

Even when Pacific conditions are good for salmon, the billions of hatchery fish then compete with Idaho steelhead for food as their ecosystem is overloaded. When conditions turn warm and the ecosystem productivity drops, there isn’t enough food to go around.

“We are dumping so many hatchery fish in the North Pacific, salmon are actually overgrazing the ecosystem,” said Guido Rahr, president and CEO of the Wild Salmon Center.

Idaho hatcheries officials stand behind their work.

“If you want to call the number of fish harvested a commodity, I guess that’s a personal choice. But I think it’s a very valuable use of the public trust,” said Lance Hebdon, salmon and steelhead manager for Idaho Fish and Game.

Idaho saved wild steelhead once

Steelhead are the same fish as rainbow trout, only they migrate to the ocean. Historically, they have been classified as A-run and B-run fish based on their size and ocean history. The A-run migrates earlier and returns after only one year — though some B-run steelhead do also return that quickly, said researcher Tim Copeland of Idaho Fish and Game.

Idaho almost lost its wild stocks as well. In the early 1980s, after the last of eight dams was built on the Snake and Columbia, steelhead numbers sank. Fish and Game was under pressure to give up on its wild steelhead because protecting them limited the harvest of other salmon upstream.

Idaho officials stood firm and found other solutions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a bypass system at its dams that captured the migrating smolts before they went into the hydropower turbines, then placed them on barges to carry them to the Columbia River estuary. Steelhead fared better than chinook and sockeye, and their numbers increased.

Through much of the remaining Clearwater and Salmon river ecosystems, Fish and Game then planted hatchery steelhead in places like the Salmon and Clearwater rivers to try to increase numbers. But its managers kept them out of wild steelhead strongholds like the South Fork, the Middle Fork, the Selway River and Fish Creek, a tributary of the Lochsa River.

Catch and release

The B-run steelhead face another problem.

Their fall run coincides with the upper river fall chinook run that spawns in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, the last free-flowing stretch of that waterway. These “fall brights,” as they are called, are the healthiest salmon run left in the Columbia, and are popular with both sport and tribal commercial fishermen.

Sport anglers must release wild salmon that have a adipose fin. Hatchery fish have theirs removed.

But tribal fishermen use gill nets for their commercial harvests. Because the B-run are the same size as the fall brights, both fish end up caught at the same time.

The tribes have treaty rights, upheld by courts, to harvest the fish in the “usual and accustomed places,” and thus protecting the B-run steelhead has been complicated.

Tribal anglers are allowed to catch from 13 percent to 17 percent of the protected steelhead as they swim between Bonneville and McNary dams, depending on how large the run is. Once that harvest is reached, they must stop gill netting.

Rahr, Lichatowich and others have recommended that the tribes use selective harvest methods. Those allow fishermen to catch the salmon live through methods such as fish traps, and release those that are threatened and endangered.

But tribes have been skeptical of selective harvests ever since dam builders suggested that they simply catch their fish at the hatcheries, said Kat Brigham, a fisher and Umatilla tribal leader. And Columbia Indians by culture don’t like catch and release.

“We don’t play with our food, we catch our food,” Brigham said.

Many of the harvest debates are about who gets to catch fish when. Many others get a shot at the fish before the tribes do: Alaska fishermen, Pacific trollers, sport anglers and commercial fishermen in the Columbia below Bonneville.

Tribes would rather reduce the overall catch than go to selective fisheries. And along with the treaty concerns, Brigham worries that a selective fishery favors the first fishermen in line over those upstream.

Hatcheries in a slightly different role

The tribes share a key value with the salmon that provide food, income and spiritual sustenance to them. They are people of place tied to the rivers near their homes.

“We’ve always pushed for natural production,” Brigham said. “These are fish that are going back to the spawning beds. These are fish that are coming back to their place, our place.”

But faced with extinct or nearly lost local runs of salmon, where solely depending on wild fish is no longer an option, tribes and states have chosen a third path, again turning to hatcheries to supplement broodstock.

The four Columbia River tribes — the Nez Perce, the Yakama, the Warm Springs and the Umatilla — have aggressively used this strategy. At the same time, they have worked with farmers and federal land managers to restore spawning habitat by putting the meander and woody debris back into rivers.

Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribes are doing the same in the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River near Sunbeam, a watershed devastated by historic mining. But even as these programs have had success, the salmon have not shown the same productivity as native wild fish in pristine habitat.

The Nez Perce have had far better success with a pilot program in Johnson Creek, a tributary of the South Fork of the Salmon near Yellow Pine. There they used only naturally spawning salmon for their broodstock, albeit raised in a hatchery.

In 2000, tribal biologist John Gebhards and others trapped 152 salmon in the weir in the creek. They trapped 1,800 in 2014.

David Johnson, the tribes’ fisheries manager, said the tribe has supplementation programs throughout the Snake Basin and works with the Umatilla on every possible river they can restore. But even if they all are successful, it won’t be enough to recover the spring and summer chinook. That’s why he’s telling federal officials they need to remove the four lower Snake River dams in Washington.

If the dams go, so will hatcheries that provide fish for harvest as mitigation for hydropower losses, he and Brigham said. But some will remain — for the tribes’ conservation work, and to provide fish for tribes and anglers in areas where the fish are extinct, such as above Hells Canyon.

Williams, Lichatowich and The Wild Salmon Center’s Rahr say that not all of the dams should be removed and not all of the hatcheries should be closed. But they want to see the salmon and steelhead treated as an integral part of the Columbia and Pacific ecosystems. That means protecting the remaining healthy ecosystems and restoring the resiliency to the wild stocks.

“Salmon are part of nature’s trust. They belong to future generations as much as they belong to us,” said Lichatowich.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

Editor’s note

The Northwest is still struggling to figure out a sustainable plan to save imperiled salmon. This is part of a continuing series exploring whether salmon can ultimately survive.