Hatcheries: The High Price of Losing a Bet

On a cold November night in 1841, two French fishermen crept to the bank of a river and silently watched Atlantic salmon creating a new generation. Watching the salmon spawn under the light of a full moon gave them an idea that has grown into a major fisheries management tool and has unfortunately led to the degradation of many rivers and their native salmon and trout populations. The fishermen, Messieurs Gehin and Remy, figured out a way to artificially fertilize, incubate and hatch salmon and trout eggs. Actually, they rediscovered a technique that had been around for a long time. But in their minds and with skillful public relations, the possibilities of hatcheries were exploited as never before.

By 1872, hatcheries had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and reached the western shore of North America. The U.S. Fish Commission proclaimed the artificial propagation of fish would make our game and commercial species so abundant that there would be no need to worry about regulations. That claim steeped in hyperbole, was accepted as fact, allowing rivers to be dammed, cleared of channel complexity, dredged, diverted, polluted, heated and silted into death traps for native fishes. Today, hatchery advocates make more modest claims, but often no more achievable. Hatcheries are still very popular especially with the bureaucracies whose budgets have benefited from the politician's willingness to fund artificial propagation of fishes instead of protecting or restoring rivers.

We bet the farm on hatcheries. We bet that concrete ponds could replace healthy rivers. It's clear that we lost the bet, but like the addicted gambler we keep laying our money down. Why have we clung so tenaciously to a technology, which according to three scientific panels, have largely failed to produce the benefits promised and has even contributed to depletion of salmon and trout populations? I found the answer not in a book on fisheries, but in a book written by the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson. In his book, Imagined Worlds, Dyson tells us to beware of technology derived from ideology rather than from science. Hatcheries were accepted even though there was no scientific basis to the Fish Commission's claim.  However, they did fit the prevailing ideology.  Hatcheries fit like a glove the view that humans should simplify, control and manipulate ecosystems to emphasize a few uses that maximize profits while ignoring ecological costs.  When we employ ideologically driven technology, Dyson says the problems and failures of that technology are overlooked until a lot of damage has been done.  That's exactly what happened.  The Endangered Species Act will eventually make us face the consequences of trading hatcheries for healthy rivers, but for now we are still in denial.

The ultimate expression of this ideology is the catchable trout programs, which deliver trout to the right spot, at the right size and at the right time to satisfy the perceived needs of the angler.  Fishing is reduced to a  simple market problem solved by the same mentality that will quickly deliver a hamburger when you are hungry.  When the hatchery is the primary management tool, the river is reduced to a little more than a stage prop, a place where the fishermen can fool themselves into thinking they are experiencing nature.  In fact, the river may be biological invalid, a place where salmon and trout cannot sustain themselves through a complete life cycle.  But that doesn't matter, or does it?

Why do fishermen put on waders and venture into the river's current?  I believe there is more to it than satisfying simple market mechanisms.  The time spent with rivers and native trout is driven by more than Adam Smith's "invisible hand".  The popularity of catch and release fishing is clear evidence that the experience runs much deeper than "fish in the boat".

It's a personal relationship among the woman or man, the river and its living community - trout, mayflies, stone flies, water ouzels - all of it.  That relationship is extended and strengthened by the ability  to read the water, to know the trout and its habitat and the grace and beauty of a perfectly placed fly.  To achieve that level of experience requires a high level of knowing and understanding not of a phony river simplified, controlled and manipulated into a stage prop, but the river and the trout as they are and as they have unfolded in all their complexity and ecological beauty over millions of years.  Fishing a herd of hatchery trout planted in a stream stripped of its ecological complexity has all the wonder, surprise, beauty and contentment of lunch at a fast food joint.

We simply cannot maintain salmon and trout without healthy rivers.  One hundred and twenty eight years ago we bet we could have salmon and trout without healthy rivers and lost.  In the Pacific Northwest where I live, the consequences of that bet are massive listings under the federal Endangered Species Act.  If hatcheries are to have a future role in salmon and trout management, their role must be as part of healthy riverine ecosystems, not in lieu of them.

Jim Lichatowich
Fishery Biologist
Columbia City, Oregon

Jim is a fishery biologist.  His recent book, Salmon Without Rivers, is a history of the Pacific salmon crisis. Posted with permission.