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News from the Front #22:
The arts of power and its minions are the same in all countries and in all ages. It marks its victim; denounces it; and excites the public odium and the public hatred, to conceal its own abuses and encroachments. Senator Henry Clay (1834)
Like the dams, fish hatcheries have been marked as victims to conceal the real "abuses and encroachments" of the fishery managers. The mark sticks because, like the dams, fish hatcheries have been poorly operated in the past. But mostly it sticks because enormous amounts of public and private money are flowing to generate anti-hatchery propaganda.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently supplied hatchery fish to the Wall Street Journal for comparison to the taste of wild, fresh-caught Alaskan salmon. Surprise! Hatchery fish brought in by the bureaucrats don't taste as good. The Federal government and foundations funded Jim Lichatowich's Salmon Without Rivers to slam hatcheries and dams. On Sunday, March 19, 2000, the Bullitt Foundation scored a double play by hiring attorney Daniel Chasen to fulminate against water users and hatcheries in simultaneous, but different, op-ed pieces in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and in The Oregonian.
Over and over, the media pound in the same messages. We can't grow more fish. We must have wild fish. We must kill the hatchery fish to protect the wild fish. Those outside the Pacific Northwest could scarcely imagine the headline:
(The Oregonian, March 10, 2000)
Headlines like this are the product of professional public relations work. Faced with popular outcry against clubbing salmon, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) has formulated a comprehensive plan to "ensure agency staff speaks from one shared perspective to reinforce agency credibility" and "enlist our partners with shared interest to act as vocal supporters". As of March 22nd, the plan had 19 short-term elements and 11 long-term elements, sending ODFW employees to fan out across the State to spread anti-hatchery propaganda. Governor Kitzhaber's office has reviewed, and apparently approved, the plan.
ODFW will "contact the editorial board of each [coastal newspaper] and set up meetings with the boards . . .". It will develop "a coordinated series of news releases", "a slide show with script and a video", "a brochure", "a comprehensive magazine article", and "participate in community group presentations". Since ODFW is about to club tens of thousands of returning spring chinook to death across the State, it must make a massive effort to mute the expected public outcry. Why our legislators continue to shovel our hard-earned money into agencies for these activities is a mystery to me.
ODFW has prepared "take home messages" and fact sheets full of lies about hatchery fish. ODFW points out, correctly, that hatchery fish "behave differently while feeding because they are used to being fed from above". ODFW then claims this behavior will "reduce the survival of their offspring". This is utter nonsense. No competent biologist believes that learned behavior is somehow transmitted through genetic material. (This was a theory in vogue 200 years ago, promulgated by the inventor of the word biology, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, but it was refuted by Charles Darwin.) That makes about as much sense as arguing that the practice of fin-clipping hatchery fish will cause the fins of wild/hatchery progeny in future generations to disappear.
ODFW claims that "most hatchery fish do not produce successful second and third generations of offspring", a proposition for which there is no scientific evidence whatsoever. No one has ever convincingly documented any long-term adverse effects of hatcheries, other than the fact that they enable overfishing that wipes out wild stocks, despite spending millions of dollars trying to prove such effects.
One reason for the failure of proof is that Nature selects against hatchery mistakes, rapidly moving the progeny of stray hatchery fish to a wild state, just as Nature does with many other animals. For example, in just a few generations, domesticated pigs revert to wild pigs, changing dramatically in appearance and becoming such an effective species that they threaten the very existence of other forest species. ODFW adopts the classic propagandist's response to this truth: simply deny it. According to ODFW, "weaker inferior fish are not selectively removed from the population as they are in the wild", as if the few months in the hatchery imparts magic powers in weaker inferior fish for the remainder of their life cycle.
Science has identified specific mistakes made by hatcheries. The best-documented mistake is picking the first fish back to breed for the next hatchery generation, thus producing a race of earlier and earlier spawning fish. In Oregon's coast range, researchers hypothesized that the nests of the early returning hatchery fish spawning in the wild tend to get washed out, so that fewer juveniles are produced in the ensuing years. The strange thing is that the researchers' own data shows higher adult counts in hatchery-stocked streams despite the washout effect. No one reports that.
Nor do the ODFW propagandists identify hatchery successes in Oregon, probably because they represent yet another dark chapter in the history of ODFW. Professor Jim Lannan points out that ODFW shut down enormously successful private salmon ranching operations in Yaquina Bay and Coos Bay several years ago because hatchery strays were getting into the rivers. Yet now, those rivers have some of the highest spawner densities on the Oregon coast, suggesting that the hatchery strays helped wild populations. Stray hatchery fish have also started a large and successful colony of nests just below Bonneville dam, unplanned by the fish managers. .
As environmentalism has usurped the place of traditional religion, blind faith in the superiority of Nature has replaced reason and the scientific method. There is no reason whatsoever to keep our hands off the salmon gene pool. It is obvious that humanity can breed better fish, even if the breeding is, for the most part, to restore features that have been lost through past mistakes of the fish managers. We could make big strides in salmon recovery by breeding fish back where they were before the nets shrunk them: they could be twice as big as they are now, with a lot more eggs per spawner, able to dig deeper nests that survive the spring runoff better.
"Hands off the genes" does not merely threaten the cause of salmon recovery; it threatens human lives as well, because we are on the verge of making enormous strides in biotechnology, and the same irrational forces demonizing hatcheries are demonizing biotechnology.
Under competent management, hatcheries would tend to develop their own breeds. Sometimes the water flow in a river is better for early spawners, sometimes late spawners. Competent hatcheries would breed the best fish for their rivers. Nor do we need to worry about genetic diversity. Left to their own devices, and freed from stultifying direction from the State and Federal government, hatcheries would produce as many breeds of salmon as there are breeds of sheep and cattle, probably running more than one breed in every river.
Really, everyone knows that you can improve upon Nature, and does so in their own gardens. But somehow this very thought is becoming politically-incorrect. And political correctness seems to be all the fish managers really care about, at least the worst ones that have the political skills to rise to the tops of their agencies by crafting plans like ODFW's.
Hatchery demonizers like ODFW don't really believe that you can't improve upon Nature. If they did, they wouldn't be spending money hand over fist to "engineer" fish structures in the rivers. It is politically-correct to build miniature dams out of tree stumps and boulders in efforts to improve upon Nature. And it is politically -correct to maintain the Status Quo at all costs, waging warfare against Nature when non-native species naturally outcompete the natives.
Most people support salmon recovery efforts to give us, and our children, and our children's children, the chance to go fishing. Even if we never go, we imagine that we can stand by a beautiful Northwest river and pull out a salmon to feed ourselves and our families. Other than removing total blockages to migration, additional habitat rules and regulations will accomplish nothing toward that end. Unless we are willing to ban all commercial salmon fishing in the ocean, there's only one realistic path to putting more fish in the rivers: grow more fish.
Actually growing fish, of course, is not something the government is particularly good at. Our current government seems to be able to do little more than move assets from one pocket to another, destroying value in the process, rather than creating assets. Real salmon recovery will come when Northwesterners tell their governments that if they won't grow more fish, they should just get out of the way. Any local watershed group or Indian tribe can do a better job of running a local hatchery than the leadership of our State fish and wildlife agencies.
© James Buchal, April 12, 2000
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