Earlier this week a clogged inlet stopped flowing water from entering the raceways containing 400,000 juvenile salmon at the Rock Creek Hatchery along the North Umpqua River. All of the young fish were killed. My 1st thought was “there’s goes a half million dollars!”.
Those juvenile fish were set to be released into the North Umpqua next spring, to begin their 3-5 year life cycle, with the final stage being a return to where they were released to start the process all over again. 400,000 fish sounds like a lot, and it is, but generally, hatchery returns are around 0.7%- 1.2%. So in the end, we lost 3,000 – 4,500 returning adults 3 to 5 years from now.
What happens to the other 395,000 fish that are released each and every year? I’m guessing that a whole lot of them don’t survive the first week after being released. Let’s jump back a little and look at the process.
First is their conception, which is quite different from their wild cousins. In the wild, the female fish digs a pit the river bed gravel (called a redd), deposits her eggs which are quickly fertilized by one or more male fish. In the hatchery, the female fish is sliced open, the eggs are scooped out into a plastic bucket. Another hatchery employee grabs a male fish and “milks” the semen into the bucket of eggs. Those are sloshed around a bit and transferred into a plastic incubation tray, which is then placed into the rack with hundreds of other trays.
The fish hatch and absorb the egg sacks attached to their belly. This is the second big divergence from what their wild cousins in the river are experiencing. Those wild fish now must begin hunting for food. A process that will continue for the rest of their 3-5 years of life. They must eat AND avoid being eaten. Survival of the fittest. Circle of life.
Not so for the hatchery fish. They begin a year of life where they are moved to either big round plastic pools and/or concrete raceways. They are also fed pelletized food on a regular basis. No hunting/searching required, it’s delivered to them like clockwork. And better yet, there are very few, if any, predators in their world!
If comes at a cost though. At somewhere between 85 cents to $1.25 to raise a salmon in a hatchery, that adds up pretty quickly when you consider the millions of fish raised each year in the Pacific Northwest. That cost is paid by the State & Federal Fish and Wildlife Divisions, NOAA Fisheries Administration, BPA and other government agencies. Eventually we all pay, by various means. Through the purchase of angling licenses, local/state/federal taxes, utility rates, etc. This is the first problem I have with hatchery fish – they are expensive.
Back to the fish. Once they reach a certain size, the juvenile fish are acclimated to their new “home” river and released. No more regular feeding, no more protection from the real world. They are dumped into the river systems along side their wild born cousins and distant relatives. What they lack in real world experience, they make up for with size and numbers. Being force fed for a year, they are quite a bit bigger than their wild counterparts.
This is where we lose a chunk of the fish, right out of the tube. They either don’t survive being dumped out of the truck/flume from the hatchery, or they simply don’t have enough sense to look for real food. Those that get a clue that the pellets are no longer raining from the sky, learn to eat just about anything smaller than them that moves. This is the second problem I have with hatchery fish. We’ve now put 400,000 very hungry fish into the river in one shot. I equate it to a horde of underwater locusts, racing to the ocean, leaving a swath of destruction in their wake. They consume a lot of aquatic life on the way, leaving the wild resident and anadromous fish population (rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, steelhead, other salmon species) to feed on what’s left.
You may inquire about the “good old days” when fish runs where in the millions and you could walk across the river on the backs of all the fish. Weren’t there way more than 400,000 juveniles in the system back then? Yes, there where. But there was also much more habitat and accessible miles of river system to support them. And those historical fish were a “staged” out migration. Wild fish eggs hatch based on a number of variables – water temperature being the primary driver. So not all the eggs hatched on or around the same time, they did not grow at the same rate, nor did they start the out migration at the same time. Before the dams, the clear cuts and the strip mines, etc., the river system was self-managing. Getting off track again, sorry……
The hatchery fish are now in the real world – eat AND don’t get eaten. For fun, let’s just assume the 400,000 original release number is now down to 390,000. Let’s look at the second part of that rule – don’t get eaten. The 390,000 fish are all moving towards the salt together – they make a large target for predators – birds mostly at this stage – cormorants, mergansers and other fish eating birds. They are also a large target for human/industrial/agricultural mishaps. Storm and Sewage overflows, chemical spills, etc. They swim past our highways, cities and farms roughly together.
Jump forward and we’ll assume that we now have 300,000 fish making it to the ocean. The food selection is a little better here. A lot of fatty things to munch on and gain size and weight. But stakes get higher. They are now swimming in water along with more predators – from above, below and all around. They are also entering the system along with millions of other wild and hatchery raised fish from other river systems. After a stint in the estuaries and bays, they head north along the coast of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. They cruise up and down the coast, the inlets and the open ocean.
Humans enter the picture again at this point in the form of commercial fishing fleets. International waters means foreign fleets with big gill and seine nets. Closer inland are the US fleets with nets behind their boats as well. They go through 2-3 years of this and it’s where the number dwindles from 300,000 down to 3,000-4,000. Those remaining fish get the signal to go home and head for the river they were released in to start the process over again.
So what was really lost when those 400,000 fish died? We lost a half million dollar investment to start. The Mergansers and Cormorants lost a shot at 390,000 easy snacks. Ocean predators lost 90,000 meals, international and US fishing fleets lost 295,000 fish from their nets and the North Umpqua anglers lost a shot at 3,000-4,000 returning adults in the next 3-5 years. The Hatchery program down there lost the bulk of their broodstock for 2019-2022.
We actually gained a lot as well. North Umpqua wild species (resident and anadromous) don’t have to compete for food with 400,000 eating machines next spring/summer/fall. Salmon and Steelhead in the North Pacific will have 300,000 fewer competitors in the saltwater for the next 3-5 years. All in all, I see this as good news for the North Umpqua. Resident species will thrive next year. Wild species will likely rebound a bit over the next few years. Win-Win!
I compare that to this years hatchery summer steelhead returns to the upper Willamette Basin Rivers. We raised and released 600,000 fish a few years back. Those fishy locusts made their way out (at least part way), swam around the salty ocean consuming food, but only 0.04% have come back. What happened? Who knows. Did they swim through some toxic waste on their way out of the river? Get eaten by the birds, the seals, the orcas, sharks? Did they get caught in gill nets by Japanese, Chinese, Russian or US fleets? Maybe all of the above. We know we bought $600,000 worth and sent them on their way. We know they consumed and competed for food. We know they aren’t coming back, and the very few that have made it this far are coming into rivers that are unusually warm and potentially life threatening for them. We lost on all fronts – Lose-Lose!
Which situation is worse? You decide.
Tight Lines and Keep ’em Wet (if you can find any)