By Peter Aspholm
Fish hatcheries have been under fire recently, with the airing of Patagonia-sponsored “Artifishal” as well as certain groups that disapprove of hatchery management or practices. To be honest, I never gave hatcheries a second thought before this year. I would look at fish or participate in fishing events there as a young child, but I simply thought of them as a place that handled fish, with no tag of “good” or “bad” attached in my mind.
Only during my senior year at Liberty Bell High School did I find myself personally involved in the world of hatcheries through my internship with Michael Humling, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Mid-Columbia Fish & Wildlife Conservation Office. His program conducts independent monitoring and evaluation of the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery’s (WNFH) salmon and steelhead programs.
Over the course of the fall and winter, I have gotten to know the hatchery well and heard both sides of a debate over the efficacy of hatcheries. The interesting part of this issue is that the end goal for both sides is the same: everyone would like to see wild salmon stocks return to healthy levels. So what is the argument really about? Michael Humling and I sat down during my internship one day to discuss that issue.
What got you into fish biology?
“Like many youngsters, I was obsessed with frogs, salamanders, turtles, etc. I also thought fish were pretty interesting and grew obsessed with fishing. In my second year of college, I learned about the Fisheries Science program at the University of Washington. That led to several adventurous work adventures across the United States, a master’s degree in the United Kingdom, and ultimately back to the Methow Valley, where I’ve been working with salmon and steelhead for over 13 years.”
I think many people could tell you very broadly what a fish hatchery does, but it’s a pretty fuzzy picture. Can you describe what the goal of a fish hatchery is?
“First and foremost, a key point often overlooked is that there are many types of hatcheries with a broad range of objectives and roles. There’s a spectrum of hatchery types, ranging from closed aquaculture systems, purely intended to grow a food product (e.g. shrimp, tilapia, catfish farms), to species recovery programs intended as a last resort to extinction for threatened and endangered species (e.g., hatcheries rearing non-game fish and mollusks). Between these two extremes is a really diverse range of hatchery programs and associated goals.
“The broad goal of salmon and steelhead hatcheries in the Upper Columbia is to mitigate for habitat loss or for mortality through the dams and reservoirs. When Grand Coulee Dam was constructed in the 1930s, over 1,100 miles of habitat was cut off to migratory fishes. WNFH rears ESA-listed spring Chinook salmon, ESA-listed summer steelhead trout, and Coho salmon (a partnership reintroduction effort with the Yakama Nation) as one part of Grand Coulee Dam mitigation. While the details of these three programs vary slightly, they each generally aim to increase abundance and ultimately support fishery opportunities.”
There are people out there who have a negative view of hatcheries, for various reasons, but most center on the idea that hatcheries negatively affect wild fish. Can you explain how hatcheries try to mitigate their impact on naturally spawning populations?
“Much criticism has been earned over the long history of hatcheries. But through studying hatcheries, particularly in places like the Methow where there’s a heavy research component and tons of data, we’ve learned a lot about the genetic, behavioral and ecological effects of hatchery programs on wild stocks. Much of this work has helped managers improve fish culture methods, reduce genetic risk and domestication, and improve hatchery infrastructure to save water and reduce pollution, etc. It can be easy to characterize past management as a failure, particularly if using fish abundance as the only gauge. Hatcheries haven’t restored runs to pre-dam levels, but they have provided a level of harvestable fish in most years and there are clearly vast additional benefits of hydropower we Pacific Northwesterners enjoy daily.”
Over the course of my internship, Michael and I have discussed the criticism of hatcheries many times. During one of these discussions, he summed his stance up is the best way I have heard. Essentially, if we decided salmon were our first priority, the solutions would be simpler. We would ban fishing, we would not let people live or ranch near rivers, and all the dams along the Columbia would be torn down. Then, all our money could be put into restoration projects and hatcheries wouldn’t be necessary because there would be a safe environment for salmon to spawn and rear.
However, these measures would be disastrous for farmers and people who rely on the cheap, relatively clean power provided by dams. Thus, hatcheries are a part of a multi-pronged solution to mitigate the damages caused by dams, pollution and climate change. It may be an imperfect solution, but a perfect solution in favor of the fish would have such large economic ramifications it would spell disaster for other important sectors of life in Washington.
Peter Aspholm is a recent graduate of Liberty Bell High School.