Salmon Hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest Part 2

This is part two of Jay Nicholas’ commentary on the state of salmon hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest. Read Part 1 here.


Part 2: Contemporary Expectations

This article continues my effort to clarify perceptions and realities of salmon hatcheries, both historical and contemporary. I am striving to be fair. Please comment if you believe that I have missed the boat. We all will be able to advocate for saving salmon, wild and hatchery fish, if we share an accurate vision of the playing field

21st Century Intention: Mitigate for extirpated salmon and steelhead runs.

I checked out the definition of mitigate as I began writing this section. Here is how my handy thesaurus defines Mitigate: 1) to make an offense or crime less serious or more excusable; and 2) to make something less harsh, severe, or violent.

Wow. This is a pretty clear definition of what I think mitigation hatcheries have achieved. Dams were built. Prime salmon-producing habitat was destroyed or made practically inaccessible. Hatcheries were funded by the entities that constructed the dams. A few salmon and steelhead are now produced below the dams. In many cases, a small fraction of what was lost. Not the real deal. Fish concentrated in time and space. Fish that do not, in my opinion, contribute to tribal, commercial, or recreational fisheries as well as wild salmon and steelhead would, if they still existed in these “mitigation” runs.


None-the-less, I view operation of mitigation hatcheries as an obligation that should be maintained and improved on. Places where anadromous fish runs have been rendered extinct, or virtually so, deserve to have salmon in the today. Tribal and non-tribal fishers, and society in general, deserve to have salmon and steelhead in these rivers.

Ya know what? The rivers deserve to have salmon in them. And the birds deserve salmon. The bugs deserve these salmon. The earth deserves these salmon.

Has this outcome been achieved? Yes, but just a little. Mitigation runs of hatchery salmon represent a commitment to perpetually subsidize these rivers, because the habitat and life cycle needs of the species have been taken from this earth by dams or some other “civilized” activity. I think that mitigation hatcheries have made an offense against nature a little less harsh. Sounds like tough talk. This is not a slam against the mitigation hatcheries, but an aver the shoulder critique of a belief that technology could ever sufficiently substitute for wild salmon and steelhead runs.

21st Century Intention: Reintroduction (restoration) of extirpated salmon and steelhead runs. This function has become a vital and hopeful driver for 21st Century hatcheries, because anadromous fish runs have been rendered extinct, or virtually so, in so many places. This is especially true in basins like the Sacramento, Upper Columbia, upper Willamette, and Puget Sound areas.

This function is vital. Although salmon are pioneer species and would re-colonize salmon-void basins when the their habitats recover, that process could take a very long time to produce more than a ghost of runs that were abundant and native to the basins. Hatcheries offer the opportunity to get salmon back into these rivers far more quickly than might otherwise be possible.


Has this outcome been achieved? Yes, hatcheries have returned salmon to rivers where they have been extinguished. Whether these re-introduced runs are, or can shortly be, self sustaining, is not certain. Perhaps salmon runs will establish themselves in reasonable abundance without constant infusion of hatchery fish. Perhaps not. Even if these runs will not soon be self-sustaining, they have merit simply because they put salmon back into these rivers where they belong. As such, runs of hatchery salmon represent a commitment to perpetually subsidize these rivers, if the habitat and life cycle needs of the species cannot yet be met by the habitat as it currently exists.

21st Century Intention: Gene conservation. Conservation hatchery programs are intended as an intervention to preclude the extinction of a particular run of salmon or steelhead. The conservation hatchery is considered a last-ditch effort to prevent catastrophic loss of adaptive genetic diversity contained in a population or Environmentally Significant Unit.

Has this outcome been achieved? Time will answer this one.

21st Century Intention: Supplement fisheries Many contemporary hatchery programs are in place with the stated intent of providing more fish to support fisheries than would otherwise be available if only wild fish were available.

Has this outcome been achieved? Yes, although I don’t know if long-term supplementation hatchery programs will have adverse impacts on the productivity of the wild runs they are sharing rivers with. Beyond that, I hope, from my heart, that our society is not satisfied with accepting hatchery salmon and steelhead, in every river, to support the runs and the fisheries.

Summary. Contemporary hatchery programs are based on perceptions that incorporate historical promises. In addition, contemporary hatchery programs are based on expectations that hatchery programs will 1) mitigate for loss of extirpated salmon and steelhead runs (miniscule success); 2) re-establish runs of self sustaining salmon and steelhead in areas where they have been extirpated (qualified success); 3) conserve genetic material represented in anadromous populations that are faced with imminent extinction (uncertain outcome); and 4) supplement fisheries (qualified success).


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3 Responses to Salmon Hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest Part 2

  1. Rob R says:

    Where’s the mitigation for all the damage done by logging in our coastal basins? Where’s the mitigation from the Army Corps and dairy farmers for their destruction of flood plains and estuaries? If hydro operators have to mitigate, they might wonder how it is that loggers and dairy farmers get a free pass. ODFW can’t afford to continue their hatchery programs under the current funding regime…hmmm.

  2. Sam says:

    Conservatoin hatchery or not it is still “domestication.” Salmon are wild beings not crops. Why not refugia (spelled no fishing) while there is still time? It is a strategy that worked well for salmon during the last ice age. If we want salmon to survive as more than mere relics we need to give up something, something big. Why not the N.F. Umpqua, and N.F. Smith (Douglas County) – my home waters. There are several other watersheds as candidate refugia. If we want harvest, and catch-and-release is not much different, only perhaps more hedonistic, then restrict our fishing to the hatchery-bred runs.

  3. Jack Harrell says:

    Salmon can be restored quite easily – really! But only when the real problems are addressed. What are these “real problems” you might ask? Oh yeah, we already know. Dams, logging, hatcheries, pollution, and other mankind caused reasons.
    Do you really know? – or are you just failing to do your homework. I ask – why are all salmon runs suffering up and down the West Coast, while salmon runs in the Great Lakes are flourishing? – Yet they have most of the same problems we have here. What’s happened to lamprey eels out here in our rivers (they’re threatened) while they’re still considered a nuisance in the Great Lakes?
    There is so much that doesn’t make sense when blaming dams, hatcheries, and habitat. What does make sense is an that all time record high numbers of salmon eating predators such as California sea lions, Pacific harbor seals, double crested cormorants, Caspian terns, and mergansers, are gobbling up our fish.
    Do most of you know that the Great Lakes don’t have any seals or sea lions? Can this be the reason they have such good runs there? Think about it.
    I encourage everyone to get on the internet and hit on salmon predators – you’ll see what a problem they are and what we really need to focus on.

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