The Early paradigm:
Follow the science, raise fish like livestock
Such nuanced operating criteria were not part of the original rationale for hatcheries. In fact, the earliest hatchery practices in the basin were simple by modern standards. Animal husbandry techniques, which successfully produced herds of farm animals, were the basis for the earliest fish farms. If feedlots and open rangeland could produce cows, hatcheries could produce salmon, or so the basic thinking went. However, salmon are not cows, the ocean is not the open range, hatcheries can’t be operated like feedlots, and the unique life history of salmon was not appreciated at the time.
In 1875, Spencer Baird, the United States Fish Commissioner, advised the commercial fishing industry that artificial propagation of salmon would be so successful it would eliminate the need to regulate harvest. Regulation was a controversial issue at the time, as the salmon runs were being fished heavily for economic gain but without effective regulation, and some scientists already were concerned that overfishing might prove catastrophic to the runs.
Baird was optimistic about the future of salmon farming because he saw it as a remedy for problems that already were beginning to affect the fish – excessive commercial fishing, the impact of dams, and the destruction of spawning habitat by human activities including agriculture, logging, and mining. He believed sufficient numbers of fish could be produced in hatcheries to satisfy the demand of commercial fishers, as hatcheries could be located on tributaries of the Columbia where the fish would not have to pass dams on their way to the ocean as juveniles or back from the ocean as adults. He was unconcerned about habitat destruction because so many fish would be spawned artificially at the hatcheries that the sheer number of fish would be sufficient for the commercial fishery, even if most of them came from hatcheries in the lower river. In other words, hatcheries protected the commercial fishery and cannery industries, and not the historic genetic diversity of the fish, which spawned in the main river and tributaries as far as the Canadian headwaters 1,200 miles from the ocean.
Canneries were a major industry on the Columbia River. At the industry’s peak in the 1880s, there were 39 of them on the river. Ironically, it was the decline of the wild runs of salmon, as the result of unregulated harvest, overfishing, and the booming canning industry that supplied fish to markets literally around the world, that prompted construction of the first Columbia River hatchery, in 1877. And perhaps equally ironically, it was the cannery industry that paid for it. In that year, as the prized Columbia River Chinook salmon runs were noticeably declining, the Oregon & Washington Fish Propagation Company raised $21,000 in donations and built a salmon hatchery on the Clackamas River.
Operated by the United States Fish Commission, its ongoing funding came from the cannery operators and the states of Oregon and Washington. It opened and closed several times as its funding ebbed and flowed, and eventually was taken over completely by the Unites States Fish Commission. The success of the facility was never questioned, as it was considered successful as long as it continued pumping out fish for the politically important commercial fishing industry. But the truth was that the hatchery was not so successful. By the 1890s, salmon runs were declining again, particularly in upriver tributaries in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
Lack of effective regulation was considered a major cause – indiscriminate fishing was the norm. In 1890, for example, it still was legal in Washington to “fish” with dynamite. In 1898, after traveling more than 3,000 miles through the interior Columbia River Basin, Washington’s fish commissioner, A.C. Little of Tacoma, reported that salmon runs had declined dramatically in Columbia River tributaries including the Tucannon, Yakima, and Touchet rivers. He estimated that less than 5 percent of the Chinook run in the Little Spokane River was present in 1898, compared to former years. Those fish were significant because the Spokane and its tributaries historically produced some of the biggest salmon in the Columbia River Basin, the June Hogs as they would be called in later years. He estimated at least 50 million salmon fry would have to be released annually in the upper Columbia tributaries “... to keep up the supply of the May and June run of Chinook to the amount of the last four or five years.”
Little’s solution to the decline was increased hatchery production funded by a tax on commercial fishers. He noted habitat destruction, water pollution in spawning areas caused by raw sewage, and other problems for the fish and worried that something had to be done about what he called “the current destruction.”
Despite growing skepticism about the value of hatcheries, there seemed to be no other solution to the problem of declining runs than to build more hatcheries. That is, if you can’t defeat the problem, outproduce it.
“There can be no doubt in the mind of anyone who has studied the question, that the future propensity of our salmon fisheries depend largely upon artificial propagation . . . I am convinced that not more than 10 percent of the ova spawned in the open streams are hatched, owing principally to spawn-eating fish that prey on them... while from artificial propagation, 90 percent are successfully hatched. What more need be said in favor of fish culture?”
— From the Oregon State Fish and Game Protector’s annual report, 1896.
Little recommended that hatchery production be tripled, and that more hatcheries be constructed in the interior Columbia River Basin. Meanwhile, little if anything was done to confront the real problems. By 1908, more than 34 million juvenile salmon were being released from hatcheries every year, and still the number of adult fish returning from the ocean continued to decline. The following year, the state of Oregon constructed the Central Hatchery, which later was renamed Bonneville Hatchery, on Tanner Creek on the lower Columbia River just downstream from the present-day Bonneville Dam. The Central Hatchery served as a place to incubate salmon eggs brought in from other hatcheries. The resulting fry were shipped to streams all over the Northwest, not to their home streams. Some were released directly into the Columbia at the hatchery.
Sometimes eggs from as far away as Alaska were incubated at the Central Hatchery and then released into the Columbia. In this way, scientists of the time believed, fisheries science would rebuild the depleted Columbia salmon runs with fish from other rivers. But in hindsight, these so-called stock transfers created the biological equivalent of hash, a melting pot of fish genes that diluted native stocks. This was a problem, but it was not understood at the time. A fish from Alaska simply does not adapt well to environmental conditions in the Columbia, and vice versa. Transferring salmon from other river basins to the Columbia disrupted the process of natural selection and adaptation that made Columbia River salmon uniquely suited to their home streams. As a consequence, the fry from outside the Columbia that were incubated at the hatchery and then released into streams in the basin generally did not survive well.
Hatcheries are harming, not helping, salmon
By the 1920s, a growing understanding of the complex life history of salmon – born in freshwater, mature in saltwater, and return to freshwater to spawn and die – caused biologists to question whether hatcheries actually might do more harm than good by overproducing salmon, which led to harvests based on anticipated high numbers of returning adult hatchery fish and, because the fishery comprised both hatchery and wild fish, declining numbers of wild species. At the time, hatcheries continued to release large numbers of juvenile fish, but the number of adult fish returning to spawn, while large, was not increasing. A United States Bureau of Fisheries report in 1920 noted that “the hatcheries probably inflicted as much, or more, damage to the salmon runs than they had service of value.”
In 1922, biologist Willis Rich reported there was no evidence that artificial propagation of salmon had conserved the runs. From his investigation of the commercial harvest and the production of the canneries, Rich concluded that “… the popular conception, that the maintenance of the [cannery] pack on the Columbia River is due to hatchery operations, is not justified by the available science.” Similarly, in 1923 the United States Fish Commission, which existed primarily to promote hatchery production, reported that without better knowledge of unique salmon life histories, the artificial production of salmon and efforts to conserve them by restricting and reducing harvests “may prove wasteful and ineffective while at the same time imposing futile obstacles to the development of a legitimate and essential industry.”
Increasingly, scientists could find no correlation between fish abundance and hatchery production. There was no scientific basis for the hatchery programs, and no regular or ongoing evaluation of their successes and failures. In a 1930 report, the dean of the School of Fisheries at the University of Washington, John Cobb, called hatcheries a threat to salmon fisheries and chastised the lack of critical evaluation of hatchery programs.
A ten-year government-funded study in British Columbia, which concluded in 1936, could not find a significant difference between the efficiency of natural salmon production and artificial salmon production. As a result, the government could not justify spending money on hatcheries and ordered them closed. In the United States, where there was strong ideological and political support for hatcheries, the results of the Canadian study were ignored.
By this time, the decline of salmon and steelhead runs was obvious, and it was becoming increasingly clear that simply building more hatcheries was not going to stop the decline. In 1938, Congress passed the Mitchell Act, which was intended to mitigate the impacts to fish from water diversions, dams on the mainstem of the Columbia River, pollution and logging. In terms of fish conservation, it was two steps forward and one step back, as the law envisioned mitigation happening through the construction of additional hatcheries, but also through the installation of juvenile fish diversion screens at irrigation water withdrawals. At least the law recognized that human activities were damaging the streams where salmon spawned.
The Mitchell Act included an initial appropriation of $500,000 for surveys and improvements in the Columbia River watershed for the benefit of salmon and steelhead and other anadromous fish. Between 1905 and 1931, the federal government had received more than $500,000 in payments from commercial fishers for leasing seining grounds adjacent to Sand Island and Peacock Spit in the Columbia River estuary. Through the authorization, Congress intended to invest money received by the government for the use of fishing grounds in efforts to rebuild and conserve the fish runs. The Act recognized that salmon and steelhead populations were in a serious decline, and that the decline was caused by impacts on spawning and rearing habitat from deforestation, pollution, hydroelectric dams, and diversion of water for irrigation.
Today, there are 20 Mitchell Act facilities that operate 60 programs and release about 42 million fish annually. All are located in the lower Columbia River downstream from Hood River, Oregon.
By the 1940s, it was clear that artificial production of fish needed a better basis in fish science. The primary purposes of hatcheries continued to be the production of fish to compensate for habitat destruction and lost natural production, and also to produce large numbers of fish for commercial harvest. Scientific research accelerated as fish managers sought a better understanding of the complex salmon life cycle. Nutritional improvements boosted salmon production, as did improved understanding of the optimal times to release fish from hatcheries.
But not until the latter decades of the 20th century did fish biologists begin to understand the impacts that hatchery fish can have on fish that spawn in the wild. For decades, fish managers in their optimism assumed that hatcheries could compensate for lost spawning and rearing habitat by simply outproducing nature. It was becoming clear that hatcheries could not do that, and, moreover, were contributing to the decline of wild fish by introducing fish into streams that looked the same as their wild counterparts but behaved much differently.
Scientists began to understand that the hatchery environment acclimates fish to artificial conditions, and that juvenile fish released from hatcheries carry this learning into the natural environment. In the hatcheries, fish were raised by the hundreds of thousands in open concrete tanks called raceways and were fed pellets at regular intervals. The fish learned to eat the pellets as they fell through the water. They learned to dash for food when it appeared, and they had no awareness or fear of predators. Released into streams, they behaved the same way. Fish spawned in the natural environment, on the other hand, learned to conserve energy, avoid predators, eat when food is available, and disperse to places in the aquatic environment where food, shelter and appropriate water temperatures are available. In the stream environment, hatchery-bred fish out-competed naturally spawned fish for food and were easy targets for predators.