Salmon Hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest Part 1

As a person who is deeply committed to wild fish conservation and the future of
fishing, I am also steep on the learning curve when it comes to to understanding
the science and policy options related to hatcheries here in the Oregon. After
blundering into the midst of McKenzie River wild trout management, I realized
also that my grasp of a historical context of fish hatcheries in Oregon was
pretty limited.

I asked Jay Nicholas to write a piece on the historical and contemporary
expectations of salmon hatcheries, hoping stimulate dialogue among the broader
community of passionate fish conservationists and anglers. Jay is my go-to guy
because of his of science and policy experience, his respect for civil
dialogue among individuals and groups with very different perspectives, and his
passion for preserving the future of fish and fishing. The article he wrote is
in two parts and I think it is a fascinating read.

I am learning more and more about fish biology, genetics, and management policy
than I had ever imagined. I am also learning more about how others view the
role of hatchery and wild fish. These two articles have jammed a lot of new
information into my brain. Issues that seemed simple now have more depth and

Hope you find these articles interesting. Feedback is always encouraged.–CD


Part 1: Historical Expectations

Salmon without Rivers, by Jim Lichatowitch (2001), is a must-read book, and it tells the hatchery story in the depth it deserves. Jim and I have read much of the same source materials in the historical record of fish management in the Pacific Northwest. My remarks and observations will refer mostly to California, Oregon Washington, and Idaho; however, these ideas are broadly applicable. Anyone who finds his or her interest piqued by this article should read Jim’s book. If you have already read his book you might find differences in the nuances of our respective interpretations.

Lest anyone try to make it so, this article is not a condemnation of choices made by managers, officials, and the public in years gone by. It is simply my effort to summarize what people expected salmon hatcheries to accomplish, and my assessment of whether these expected outcomes were achieved. My intention is to share information and stimulate discussion among all the people who care about native salmon , steelhead, and trout here in the Pacific Northwest. Hatcheries have been part of the psyche of salmon managers and fishers for about a hundred and forty years here in the lower 48. A full understanding of our history as fishers and managers seems crucial to the choices we make about the future of native, wild fish n the region.

This is my no-frills assessment of what hatcheries were intended to accomplish during the 19th Century (Part 1), followed by key 21st Century rationale (Part 2). I think that 19th Century thinking regarding salmon hatcheries is still deeply embedded in 21st Century management philosophy and public perception.

19th Century Intention: make salmon habitat unnecessary. A dynamic balance that had sustained native humans and salmon across the region for over ten thousand years was not appreciated by a society determined to conduct commodity transactions with wood, precious metals, salmon, transportation, water, and the like. Officials charged with fish management were few in number, virtually powerless, and recognized quickly that the industrialization of the Pacific Northwest was destructive to salmon and steelhead runs. Hatcheries, these officials reasoned, offered a solution. Hatcheries, they believed, could effectively replace the natural habitats that were being destroyed.

Was this outcome achieved? Nope. We have lost 80 – 90% of the salmon-producing capacity of many Pacific Northwest watersheds in the lower 48. Hatchery salmon and steelhead – clearly – have not fully compensated for this staggering loss.

Is this still a 21st Century expectation for hatcheries? Sadly, I think so. I see a risk that this thinking is alive-and-well in 2010 and could easily be resurrected to justify increased rates of urbanization and resource extraction, not only across the lower 48, but also in Canada and Alaska. Pristine and highly diverse and productive salmon and steelhead runs n Canada and Alaska are seriously threatened by precious metal mining, oil drilling, and timber harvest. All of these resources are in high demand. Development that stands to profit from mining minerals, water, oil, and land represent a serious threat, in my opinion, to the ecological, cultural, and economic legacy that our native salmonid runs represent.

19th Century Intention: minimize interference with resource extraction activities.
Fishery officials of the 1800s and early 1900s recognized that 1) they had no power to prevent the destruction of salmon streams and 2) even if they did have the power, the economic effects of limiting fishing, logging, mining, dam building, irrigation, and the like, would damage the economy of the region. Reserving rivers for salmon was incongruous with the thinking of the time. White men were here to tame the west and harvest the riches of lands and waters; it didn’t make sense for salmon to stand in the way of that mandate. Hatcheries were viewed as a means to allow full-bore conduct of fishing, logging, mining, dam building, and the like, while still having a bounty of salmon to catch.


Was this outcome achieved? Yes. The promise of hatchery salmon-a-plenty did, in my opinion, diminish debate over resource extraction and destruction of salmon habitat.

Is this still a 21st Century expectation for hatcheries? Again, sadly, I think so. Current and pending efforts to alter what little salmon habitat we have left in the Pacific Northwest could get the go-ahead if people buy into the promise of hatchery salmon in lieu of wild fish runs.

19th Century Intention: Improve on nature. The mind-set of the Nineteenth Century was that human industry was superior to the unpredictability and apparent inefficiency of nature. Man could grow better crops. Man could tame rivers. Man could improve on nature’s beasts. A female salmon produced several thousand eggs, most of which could reliably be protected from floods in hatcheries. Mere hundreds of salmon cultured in hatcheries could produce millions; far more that nature was capable of.

Was this outcome achieved? Not even close. Salmon and steelhead hatcheries presently operating in the Pacific Northwest haven’t replaced what we’ve lost. Hatcheries do, in some situations, produce a return of adult fish greater than natural spawning could these days. I cannot think of a single instance where hatchery technology has produced super salmon, critters that are superior to nature’s own.

Is this still a 21st Century expectation for hatcheries? I think many people still believe that science can create a better salmon than nature.

19th Century Intention: Allow virtually unrestrained fishing. This 19th Century intention was clear. Salmon meant money. Restricted fishing seasons meant less money. Hatcheries were thought capable of producing more salmon, or at least as many salmon as white folks found here when the fish, the lands, and the waters were shared with native peoples, thereby allowing fishing to continue, predictably, year after year, with clear consciences all around.


Was this outcome achieved? No. This will be discussed more in a following Chapter, as I believe that even the promise of having an endless supply of salmon from hatcheries enticed managers into excessive-harvest of wild stocks. Although hatchery salmon and steelhead do allow fishing in many areas today, and provide fish that contemporary habitat would not otherwise be able to produce, hatcheries have not produced the fishing bonanza that was promised by the founders of the hatchery system.

Is this still a 21st Century expectation for hatcheries? Somewhat. Because hatcheries do produce salmon, and some hatcheries produce what seems like a lot of salmon, many people still equate salmon and salmon fishing with hatcheries.

19th Century Intention: Provide food. Salmon represented money to 19th Century cannery and fishing industries. Salmon also represented a food resource. Hatcheries that could produce bountiful salmon runs were seen as a means of keeping the money and food supply resources of the Pacific Northwest on “full.”

Was this outcome achieved? Historically, no. Today, somewhat. Early hatchery production efforts were virtually ineffective, and only wild fish were harvested to support the fishing industry and provide food. Today, however, many of the fish that are available for harvest in the Pacific Northwest (remember that this article refers principally to CA, OR, ID, and OR) are hatchery salmon and steelhead.

Is this still a 21st Century expectation for hatcheries? Yes. Some mitigation hatcheries are virtually the sole source of salmon in rivers where wild runs were extirpated. In such cases, tribal treaty rights to salmon and steelhead are entirely dependant on hatchery fish, as are non-tribal fishing and harvesting opportunities.

Summary. Hatcheries in the Lower 48 region of the Pacific Northwest began production during the Nineteenth Century. Historically, hatcheries were promised as an effective means to 1) render salmon producing habitat unnecessary (failed); 2) minimize disruption of resource extraction in the region (succeeded); 3) improve on nature (failed); 4) allow unrestrained fishing (conditional success); and 5) provide food (conditional success).

Next up – Salmon Hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest – Part 2: Contemporary Expectations.


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4 Responses to Salmon Hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest Part 1

  1. Andy says:

    “Salmon without Rivers” was a fascinating book. I’ve read it 3 times and give it to everyone I know who cares about this stuff. I had no idea about what went on in the 1800s and early 1900s until reading it. Your points seem pretty accurate in my limited knowledge.Thanks

  2. Rob R says:

    Jay, when you first started suggesting this “acceptance” of hatcheries, I was uneasy. Even though I thoroughly trusted your motivations, something felt wrong. I later realized it was my ego whining–I didn’t want to give an inch on hatcheries, because I didn’t want to give any semblance of support to those who would gladly replace our last wild runs with hatchery. There are many in the sportfishing industry who believe hatchery fish are equal to wild, and/or believe that there is no such thing as a wild fish.

    Your timing on this issue was impeccable (you must have known), since spring and summer are the times when I am most reliant on hatchery programs for my fishing. The seed you planted caused me to look at coastal springers and steelhead with a different eye this season. I released a lot of hatchery fish–very weird, but it felt good– largely driven by a newfound respect for these incredible animals.

    Perhaps the best way forward is for us wild fish advocates to take a step to the middle. Or maybe it’s just a step toward accepting reality. While I have no expectation that the greed-driven pro-hatchery industrialists (yeah, I’m emotionally invested here) will respond in kind, I think yours is a worthy effort. The shift in perspective has already improved my outlook and attitude. You’re selling a complicated concept here, offering some much needed social counseling. Thanks, I think!

  3. Thanks Jay,
    Interesting historical perspective for those new to the hatchery debate. You are correct that hatcheries in some cases provide the only fishing opportunity and are therefore able to provide a valuable societal service. Unfortunately there is little oversight of hatchery practices or of the efficacy/impacts of hatchery programs. I am particularly loathsome of hatcheries because I live in a region where they are an absolute failure. Puget Sound steelhead hatcheries routinely see smolt to adult survival below 1%, chinook programs aren’t any better. A recent analysis by the state auditor found that each blackmouth caught in Puget Sound costs taxpayers $750 dollars. That doesn’t factor in the ecological cost of crowding an already degraded estuary system with millions upon millions of smolts annually. Hatcheries can support harvest in some instances but they should be the exception rather than the rule. Sadly WDFW and most other management agencies remain entrenched in the 20th century production first attitude, failing to recognize their own shortcomings. I look forward to reading more…


  4. Jay Nicholas says:

    Thanks, gentlemen. Nice to know that someone is reading with a critical mind and thinking about the situations that exist in specific areas, which merit genuine discussion and analysis. BTW, I believe that some hatchery adults cost even more in the creel. Keep the mind and the discussion sharp! JN

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