Air Date: Week of February 4, 1994
Alan Siporin of KLCC in Seattle examines the puzzling drop in returns of salmon to Pacific Northwest hatcheries. Shrinking habitat has been pushing many species of wild salmon to the brink of extinction. Now, salmon bred in hatcheries are dwindling as well. Some blame the drop on temporary weather conditions. But some biologists say the disappearance of wild salmon threatens the healthy gene pool that hatchery salmon must draw upon to survive.
CURWOOD: In the Pacific Northwest, a recent study by the Wilderness Society found that 9 out of the 10 local salmon species are facing extinction. It's the latest snapshot of the decline that's been going on for years. In hopes of offsetting that decline, an extensive system of salmon hatcheries have been set up to stock many streams and support the region's fishing industry. But in the last year, hatchery salmon have also been disappearing at an alarming rate, and no one is exactly sure why. Alan Siporin of member station KLCC reports.
(Salmon hatchery water flowing)
SIPORIN: At the McKinsey salmon hatchery just west of the Cascade Mountains, water falls into 30 concrete ponds, each holding as many as 300,000 salmon. Electric netting protects the tiny fish from herons, minks, and raccoons. When the salmon are about a year old they'll be released and head down the McKinsey River and to the Willamette, then to the Columbia. From there they'll enter the Pacific Ocean and head north, spending three to four years off British Columbia and Alaska. Finally, they'll head back, retracing their route until they return to the hatchery. It's assumed that many won't make it. There are numerous obstacles to their survival. But this past year, hatcheries in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, have reported record low returns. Fish biologists say the intermittent ocean warming condition known as El Niño has made the last couple years worse than usual. McKinsey hatchery manager Dave Rogers says El Niño
ROGERS: What was happening is that, as these fish got out to the ocean there wasn't the nutrients in the feed to really get them going, and so a lot of them did not survive.
SIPORIN: That's more bad news for the region's fishing industry, which has become heavily dependent on hatchery fish. Currently, hatchery salmon account for 80% of the commercial catch. But some fish biologists say the El Niño effect could be short-lived. Bernie Bahn is the harvest manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
BAHN: These conditions come and go, and we just happen to be in, looks like, in some of the worst conditions we've experienced over the last many years. You ride it out. You wait - you wait till conditions moderate, 'cause they will.
SIPORIN: But many here are less optimistic, because they say there is more going on than a recurring El Niño.
SPAIN: That's really the straw that broke the camel's back.
SIPORIN: Glenn Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations says a lot of factors have contributed to salmon problems. For example, he says, hatchery fish are inherently less able to deal with changing conditions like those caused by El Niño.
SPAIN: Hatchery fish are not as adapted to ocean conditions. They don't survive as well. They don't breed as well. They are weakened stocks, basically.
SIPORIN: Spain says hatchery salmon have become dependent on hatchery conditions. these fish are released when they're one year old, affording them longer protection from predators and the elements. But that may also mean that the natural selection process is disrupted, leaving weaker fish to breed again, weakening the genetic pool. Spain says the health of hatchery salmon inevitably depends on the health of their original genetic source: the wild salmon. And the conditions affecting their survival have been deteriorating for years.
SPAIN: What we've got here is years and years of habitat loss, years and years of streams basically being eroded out or misused, and riparian areas completely damaged by onshore practices.
SIPORIN: Historically, declining runs of wild salmon have been dealt with by boosting production from hatcheries and cutting back on fishing. Now, however, with the hatchery production in decline, officials see increased fishing restrictions as the only way to ride out El Niño. There's even been talk of the Federal regulating agency, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, calling for a total ban on cohoe salmon fishing this season. Fish management officials say they know this will place severe hardships on fishermen. Glenn Spain says that's unfair.
SPAIN: Fishermen are biting the bullet. We've been biting the bullet for 10 years. We've lost 40,000 jobs as estimates in California alone. We're probably going to lose another several tens of thousands in Oregon and Washington. What I object to, and I think what almost every fisherman objects to, is being the only one out there who's regulated, when the cause is onshore.
SIPORIN: Spain says the Federal officials that manage the fishery don't even have the legal authority to address the habitat problems. He says they restrict fishing because that's just about all they can do. However, some help may be on the way. At the end of January, the Federal government designated parts of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho as critical habitat for the endangered Snake River salmon. The designation could sharply curtail logging, grazing, and irrigation, as well as fishing in those areas. This will also help other salmon stocks that use the same waterways. Habitat restoration takes time, however. Likely, more time than the passing of El Niño. And until conditions both offshore and upstream improve, the survival of wild and hatchery salmon may remain in jeopardy. For Living on Earth, this is Alan Siporin in Eugene, Oregon.
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