You are here
Why hatcheries suck
"The trout hatchery at iDeath was built years ago when the last tiger was killed and burned on the spot. We built the trout hatchery right there. The walls went up around the ashes...
The hatchery has a beautiful tile floor with the tiles put together so gracefully that it's almost like music. It's a swell place to dance. There is a statue of the last tiger in the hatchery. The tiger is on fire in the statue. We are all watching it."
-Richard Brautigan In Watermelon Sugar
I meet a lot of fishermen who'll tell me how they've learned to stop worrying and love hatcheries. "Sure they've done damage in the past," these apologists for hatcheries say, "but the science keeps improving. And we couldn't fish for steelhead and salmon anymore without them. Plus we need them to put fish back in rivers where they've gone extinct."
Hatchery science may have improved, but hatcheries still suck. Don't take my word for it: A study published last December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science says that hatchery steelhead breeding with their wild counterparts will produce offspring less fit for survival, a trait discernable after just one generation of interbreeding. Search the database in any decent library and you'll come up with a dozen more papers like this one.
Broodstock programs might be judiciously applied to bring back salmon back to some rivers. But here's a better idea: bring the river back to the fish. Tear out dams. Castrate with dull knives and a lot of salt all offending polluters. Quit subsidizing water to grow subsidized crops we already grow too much of in the first place. The result will be a cascade of happy improvements that benefit the whole river ecosystem, not just a few hatchery-stoned fishermen and handful of hatchery employees.
I could stray into a lengthy diatribe on the seemingly intractable problems in hatchery fish pathology, genetics, and behavior. But let's face it: if you had to choose further reading from the sources I've cited in this article so far, you're more apt to go find a copy of Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar than you are to go stampeding for your prized copy of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Brautigan's tiger parable lets us in the truth of why hatcheries really suck. Rightly understood as a political tool, hatcheries look far more potent, debilitating and dangerous than some kind of flawed but perpetually improving scientific instrument.
Politicians are forever plucking at the branches of science, if only because they need to use the leaves as cover for the naked corruption of their actions. In the Columbia Basin alone, the U.S. is spending a billion dollars a year on a hatchery dependent salmon recovery program. Good science tells us this won't work. But the need for scientific cover on the part of some politicians has been well-recognized by some unscrupulous scientists. The latter become eligible for promotion. They're known as "scientific consultants." They produce data that compares one degraded, hatchery dependent river system to itself, or occasionally to another. They conclude the results promising. Not because of increased returns. But because hatchery science is improving. Politicians pay for another round of consultants' data. Each party is free to come dance at the hatchery.
Scientists remaining bravely, steadfastly unmuzzled by the broke-dick politics of the situation recognize this plan as unworkable. The real science of hatcheries is telling us to quit depending on hatcheries. Yet the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells power from most of the 427 dams in the Basin, is bankrolling more of them. For reasons that have little to do with biological health, or even sanity, the Obama Administration and key members of Congress think this is a swell idea.
Hatcheries suck because they've disguised a staggering loss of biological diversity and abundance. With a century of hatchery experimentation in the rear view mirror, nearly everything has been lost for Pacific salmon in the lower 48, including a grip on reality. Most weeks of salmon season here in the Columbia Basin, it's possible to track down a forecast from some misguided guide, federal mouthpiece, blogger or outdoor pundit chortling about the "near record returns of kings over Bonneville Dam." This is so patently false it shouldn't even qualify as a delusion.
Hatcheries suck because they dull and eventually mute our collective and communal historic memory. 20 million wild salmonids swam up the Columbia and Snake in the pre-dam era. This has been reduced by at least ninety-nine percent. We now have a river that drains square mileage from Nevada to British Columbia to the coast, sparsely populated with a quarter million wild salmon, "supplemented" by three-quarters of a million hatchery fish. That's a record to be reckoned with, for sure. But not as a measure of abundance.
Hatcheries suck because they relegate fish to being stage props in a play that's set in the wire room of some extremely profitable but corrupt racket. One particularly egregious scene in this drama is unfolding on the Klickitat River, a southern Washington tributary of the Columbia. The Yakama Tribe and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have extracted bales of cash from the generous folks at Bonneville Power. Almost $400 million between the two of them, money paid to the tribe and state to unconditionally support the aforementioned unworkable salmon plan. The agreement stipulates that options like Snake River Dam removal will not be on the table. The signatorees will go quietly along with whatever the federal government construes as salmon recovery. Habitat improvement projects are kosher, but there's only so many willows that can be planted by so many school children for four hundred mill. Now a new hatchery: that can suck up ducats like a hooker at a sex-addict convention. But the offer's only good until 2018. New hatcheries take a long while to be vetted by various attending bureaucracies. The money's burning a hole in the agencies' respective pockets.
To alleviate this sense of fiscal urgency, Washington and Yakama Fisheries Departments are recycling a hatchery proposal from the early eighties that was beaten back then because the science didn't support the draconian biological impacts: hatchery managers, for instance, are proposing to mine half of all remaining wild summer chinook run (less than 400 fish) on the Klick as broodstock for the hatchery. This could reduce the wild chinook's numbers to the point where the few that remain aren't genetically viable. Thus one entirely plausible measure of this hatchery's "success" will be that no more kings reproduce naturally in the river. The sweetener for what was already a really shitty idea 30 years ago has nothing to do with a new hatchery: the state and tribe have promised to quit stocking non-native fall chinook and coho if they get to build their new chinook factory. They could, of course, for free, quit stocking non-native fish tomorrow.
Hatcheries suck because they were supposed to mitigate dams. They didn't. Now we're mitigating the hatcheries.
Hatcheries suck because they made the last utterly insanely destructive round of big dam building look okay on paper. Hatcheries suck because they are reflective of the disease that allows industry to pimp out science for whatever convenience it deems necessary. Hatcheries suck because this is the same sickness that brought you pain-relief pills that cause heart attacks, anti-depression pills that incite rage, fire retardant that poisons water, and a legal system that says free speech and money are the same thing.
Mainly though, hatcheries suck because they lull you into thinking that the fishing doesn't suck, and that your river doesn't suck either. This precludes the work of imagining a better fish. And a better river. Even a better world, where at least not all of us are resigned to watching that last tiger burn.