Wild-broodstock hatchery programs were sold to Oregonians as a way to provide harvestable steelhead while also protecting wild populations from the harmful effects of domestication and out-of-basin introductions. In reality, there were no benefits for wild steelhead or salmon. But for fishery managers, wild-brood was a savior. Steelhead hatchery programs had seen major declines in their rates of return as hatchery broodstock became more domesticated, and the high cost of each returning adult slid into the ridiculous. Some programs, like those provided by the Sandy Hatchery and the Trask Hatchery repeatedly found themselves on the chopping block, only to be saved at the 11th hour by sympathetic legislators.
The real benefits of wild-broodstock had nothing to do with conservation, and everything to do with business and the status quo. Using wild steelhead as the source of eggs and milt promised an immediate and substantial spike in the rate of return. Whereas domesticated stocks routinely saw rates at or below 1%, wild-brood raised the rate to 5%, 10% or more. Fishery managers got religion, and fast. They realized they could resurrect their failing programs, provide a much better product, and take credit as conservationists in the process. All they had to do was apply for a few permits and come up with a program for collecting wild fish for spawning.
After a handful of promising pilot projects, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) took the show on the road. It rolled out wild-broodstock programs state-wide, and in another brilliant business move, contracted with local angling groups to help collect broodstock and feed the offspring. Soon coastal communities were buzzing with happy anglers, guides and merchants who were deeply vested in their local hatchery programs. And everyone took notice of the result: the new hatchery steelhead were as big, strong, and beautiful as natives, but they were “keepers.” Never mind the fact that valuable wild fish were being taken out of natural production, or the fact that ODFW often had no idea what proportion of the wild run was being taken for the new programs.
Before, during and after ODFW made the state-wide transition to wild-brood, one of the agency’s most respected researchers, Dr. Katherine Kostow, published studies that signaled trouble with the new programs. Kostow found, among other things, that the progeny of wild steelhead hatched and raised in the Hood River Hatchery, showed clear signs of domestication. In other words, no matter how “pure” the parents were, steelhead reared in a hatchery would quickly slide toward the same behaviors as the old domesticated stocks, losing diversity, and likely passing those deficiencies on to their offspring. The conservation community realized that the potential risk of genetic decay might actually be greater from wild-brood than from domesticated stocks, since wild-brood offspring had a better chance of spawning successfully.
ODFW had already pushed the snowball off the mountain, and nobody was about to risk his or her career by jumping in front of it. So in spite of warnings, in spite of good science that indicated the potential for greater risk to wild fish, ODFW stood its ground and stayed the course.
On January 4th, 2011, at an ODFW town hall meeting in Salem, concerned citizens questioned agency leadership as to the conservation benefits of wild-broodstock programs. Ed Bowles, Oregon’s chief of fisheries, and an outspoken advocate for wild fish management, announced that “as far as which type of program is best for wild steelhead, domesticated versus wild-broodstock, the jury is still out.”
This week, with the public release of a comprehensive new study on salmon and steelhead hatchery programs throughout the Pacific Northwest*, we have strong, defensible evidence that wild-broodstock hatchery programs do not protect wild fish from the negative effects of hatchery programs. The harmful effects of wild broodstock, particularly the genetic effects, are far from being understood. Yet the burden of proof is still being placed squarely on the shoulders of the conservation community. Advocates for wild salmon and steelhead are effectively held responsible for proving that these programs cause harm, while those who are all too eager to risk it all, in the name of the almighty dollar, go about their business.
Oregon is in the grip of addiction to its hatchery programs, and we’re still a long way from a full-scale intervention. But the tide is shifting, and support for wild fish is growing daily. This new study moves us one big step closer to a future where wild fish receive the respect and protection they deserve. Heartfelt thanks to Chilcote, Goodson and Falcy for their spectacular efforts. The beers are on me next time you gents roll through Eugene!
See what wild-broodstock programs are doing now to wild steelhead on the Sandy River.
Join the cause here.