Think Out Loud

Federal efforts to save salmon in the Pacific Northwest are failing

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
May 24, 2022 4:42 p.m. Updated: May 31, 2022 9:08 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, May 24

The salmon viewing area at the Dalles Dam, August 2021.

The salmon viewing area at the Dalles Dam, August 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


The U.S. government promised Native tribes in the Pacific Northwest that they could keep fishing for salmon as they’d always done. But instead of working to preserve wild salmon, the federal government has propped up a system of failing hatcheries. OPB’s Tony Schick tells us about his new investigative report, completed in collaboration with ProPublica.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: More than 150 years ago, the U.S. Government promised sovereign Indigenous tribes in the Northwest that they could keep fishing as they had always done. Then came massive overfishing, then came dams, both of which devastated runs of native salmon. The federal government responded by creating a system of hatcheries, a $2 billion system that is now falling apart. More juvenile fish than ever are being put in the river. Fewer and fewer are surviving. Tony Schick has been investigating the hatchery system for a series of articles in collaboration with Propublica. He joins us now to talk about what he has found. Welcome.

Tony Schick: Thanks so much for having me.

Miller: I want to start with some historical context. You include some striking sentences from a 1947 memo signed by the Interior Secretary. It reads, ‘The overall benefits to the Pacific Northwest from a thoroughgoing development of the Snake and Columbia are such that the present salmon run must be sacrificed. Efforts should be directed towards ameliorating the impact of this development upon the injured interests and not toward a vain attempt to hold still the hands of the clock.’

It was striking reading that because it’s so plain spoken in a way that we don’t really often see today. I mean, basically, they’re saying we’re not going to spare these salmon if it means getting in the way of “progress”.  But what was the “amelioration’' that the feds were putting forward?

Schick:  The amelioration at the time, or shortly after the fact, was making fishing in hatcheries. And dating back even further than that. There were attempts at hatcheries dating back to the late 1800′s - like 1875. And those kind of petered out by the Great Depression. And because of that kind of thinking that’s laid out in that memo, ‘these salmon runs have to be sacrificed,’ they didn’t really leave themselves any other options. There were biologists at the time who weren’t convinced that hatcheries were the way to go. They were going to do what they wanted, in terms of keeping a population going, but they didn’t really have a better option at the time. So this is what was put forth.

Miller: What’s the treaty context for this work?

Schick: Yeah, I mean, the treaty context is that many Tribal Nations in the Pacific Northwest signed treaties in the 1850′s with the U.S. government ceding land. And critical to those treaties was the right to fish and the right to gather foods as they always had. And they preserved the right to fish on the reservation and also at usual and accustomed places. And that has been interpreted over the years as the need to have fish in the rivers for tribes to be able to catch, to fulfill those treaty rights.

Miller: It’s just worth saying that some of those usual places don’t even exist anymore even if there were fish. For example, Celilo Falls - it has been inundated. It is no longer a falls but was a hugely important part. And that’s just one place among many. So I want to turn back to this idea for fish hatcheries. When the current regime of fish hatcheries really started to take hold in the middle of the last century, how much did federal authorities know about how effective these kinds of operations could be?

Schick: Well, they really started to take off after a lot of these main stem dams were put into place. And a lot of them are funded in some sort of agreement with the dams or funded through power generated at the dams. And there was evidence at that time when they were coming in that these would not be enough to sustain salmon. There’s not the amount of evidence we have now in terms of how hatchery fish can impact wild fish and all that. But there were studies as early as the 1920′s showing an influx of hatchery fish here did not actually conserve the overall supply of salmon. And so there were indications at the time that this was not going to be the solution for fish abundance that officials wanted it to be when they’re saying ‘this salmon run has to be sacrificed and we’ll figure the rest out later.’

Miller:  As you noted, they saw this. If dams were going to be a given, this was their only option and that’s a big given to start with...

Schick: … particularly for dams like Grand Coulee where there’s still no fish passage. There were no other ways to ameliorate that. It was [a case of] ‘what we can do is we can try and hatch fish at these hatcheries below the dam and keep things going that way’. There were really limited options at the time.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for the scale of these operations now?

Schick:  Yeah. In the Columbia River Basin, there’s dozens and dozens of hatcheries. There are often cited as 200 different hatchery programs which could be multiple programs at a hatchery. But there are hatcheries throughout the basin and some are run directly by the federal government. Some are run by state fish and wildlife agencies and some are run by Tribes. And there are multiple purposes for hatcheries. Some of them are purely your harvest-based hatchery that is producing fish particularly to be caught. There are some hatcheries that are a little bit of a mix. They are trying to seed a natural population while also supplying fish to catch. And then there are some cases, like with Snake River sockeye. Their populations got really low. That’s more of a safety net captive breeding program, the way that you would try with a California condor or something - just trying to keep a population on life support.

Miller:  How much does the federal government spend on hatcheries each year?

Schick:  Tens of millions of dollars. I would have to check my notes. I don’t have exactly, in front of me, the amount spent per year. But there are multiple programs and each one of them can have 10′s of millions of dollars. For instance, like in 2021, it looks like $130-140 million, in that range. [I’m] doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations off of my spreadsheet here.


Miller:  Can you break that down in terms of how much money is being spent on each fish that actually returns?

Schick:  That depends a lot on the particular hatchery and it also depends on how you measure it. So once upon a time back in 2001, there was an economic analysis that looked at this and found that for some hatcheries, if you look at only the fish that are actually caught out of everything that’s raised, it can be thousands of dollars, like $60,000 in an outlier case for a single fish.

We were looking more at fish coming back to the river and not specifically fish that get caught. And we looked at the largest cluster of hatcheries in the Columbia River Basin, which is the Lower Snake River Compensation Plan. In an average year, if you just take the amount of fish that are counted in returns, and their roughly $30 million budget, it shakes down to about $250.00 for every adult fish. And then in more recent years when the returns have been worse, that’s close to $640 to $650.

Miller: As part of your reporting you dug through publicly available, hard to navigate data about recent fish returns for eight different Columbia River Basin hatchery populations. Can you give us an overall sense for what you found?

Schick:  Yeah, we found that the survival of these populations is significantly lower than you would want it to be for recovering and rebuilding populations. And we also found that the more recent years of survival have been quite low. And the other thing to keep in mind with compared to an average of 4% surviving benchmark, a long established threshold for how many you would want to survive because a lot of salmon do naturally die, we are seeing much lower than that.

And we chose a generous estimate of survival because we wanted something that could be consistent. So we took a measurement of fish when they were crossing Bonneville Dam, the lowest on the Columbia, out to the ocean, and then counted them when they came back in. Now that doesn’t count all of the fish that are going to die on their way down before they get to Bonneville. And it also doesn’t count fish that might cross Bonneville, but then die before they’re reaching their ultimate destination. And so we took kind of a higher end estimate. But even using that higher end estimate, we found that survival is quite low and quite lower than you would want it to be - lower than recovery goals.

Miller:  What does that mean in terms of the long term viability of these programs?

Schick:  The hatchery program, particularly one that’s trying to produce fish for harvest, doesn’t need a lot of fish to come back just to be able to make more. It needs a fraction of a percent of fish because the benefit of a hatchery is you can take a few 100 fish and make a million eggs.

Miller: …as you describe. Slice them open when they get there, grab the eggs, grab some sperm and make more juvenile salmon?

Schick: Exactly. You can keep a lot of them alive in the hatchery a lot better than they would do in a wild stream. But the problem is the ocean is getting worse for salmon because of climate change. And so you are going to see fish that do not survive the ocean very well because they have some domesticated effects of being bred in captivity heading out to an ocean that is harder and harder to survive where federal scientists are predicting a 90% decline in survival. So what you’re going to see is (if you have survival rates now that are low) in bad years around 1% or lower fish getting to where they’re trying to go. And then on top of that, in the coming decades, we’re going to see a 90% drop off from that. Then you’re going to start to see hatcheries really struggling to have enough fish to have enough eggs to breed future generations of salmon.

And you’re also gonna see them struggle to return salmon in numbers that would support viable fisheries simply because once you’re releasing fish they are not able to survive. The other aspect here is that salmon have survived as long as they have, in part, because of their natural kind of resiliency and genetic diversity and how honed in they are to their home streams. And so you need to preserve some of that fitness for the fish. The folks I’ve talked to have been in hatcheries a long time,don’t really want to see a scenario in which we don’t have wild fish to be able to have that kind of genetic resiliency and fitness and strength ‒ where we only have fish that are in captivity. No one wants that.

Miller: To what extent is this a conflict now between hatchery fish and wild fish?

Schick: It is one, in that they sometimes are directly competing. Once fish are released or hatch on their own, they are competing for food and everything. So if you’re releasing hatchery fish into the wild, there’s some competition with wild fish. There’s also the genetic question, and there’s been a lot of attention paid to this, of fish from hatcheries interbreeding with wild fish and weakening the gene pool. And then you also have the issue of there being only so many fish that the habitat can support and we’re kind of diminishing that as we keep building and polluting and building up the Basin. We’re making less habitat. And so if you’re releasing hatchery fish, you’re adding to that total so how many fish in here can we really support? So there is a tension there definitely.

Miller: In your article it also seems like to some extent, correct me if I’m wrong, this has turned into a conflict between Native tribes, some of whom are now running hatchery programs and conservation groups, groups that are often led by white people who are saying that these hatchery programs are being put forward to the detriment of wild runs. Can you unpack this conflict?

Schick: Yeah, at the root of this conflict is the failure to protect and recover wild fish. If there’s enough wild fish to catch, this conflict likely doesn’t exist. But from those groups who are sometimes filing lawsuits to curtail hatchery releases and to protect wild fish, the argument is, why would we be filling rivers with hatchery fish when this is to the detriment of wild fish? This is shooting salmon recovery in the foot. And the argument often made on the other side is that there is not a salmon run without hatchery fish right now. And as it’s been described to me from some scientists working with tribes, they feel as though the environmental group perspective is asking fish to be perfect in an imperfect environment. And so they feel as though it’s asking too much of salmon, and that much is made over the impacts of hatchery fish but really it is that we have hatcheries because of these problems with natural production. And so why are you focusing on this symptom, so to speak, when we should all be looking at habitat and these other issues. That’s kind of where the tension is. And for tribes, they are often operating hatcheries and have found themselves, at times, defending or working within a system that they didn’t really ask for. But this is the only real on-the-ground tool that tribes have for putting fish back into the rivers to exercise their treaty rights.

Miller:  This is just the first article in a series you’re going to be putting out. Can you give us a sense for what’s to come?

Schick:  As I mentioned a few times in this [interview], habitat is a big deal, and what happens to fish once they’re actually released out of the hatchery. So we’re going to be looking at some of those broader factors in terms of habitat and dams and what mechanisms are in place that have  prevented us from making more progress on the front of establishing better habitat for salmon? Then we’ll also be looking at what happens with all of the pollution and toxic chemicals that get into these salmon that are a pretty significant part of people’s diets, particularly tribal member’s diets.

Miller:  Thanks very much.

Schick: Thank you.

Miller: Tony Schick is an OPB reporter.

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