Four years ago, 5.2 million juvenile fish (4.6M Chinook, 600K Steelhead) were released into the Willamette Basin Rivers (Coast Fork, Middle Fork and Main stem Willamette, McKenzie, South and North Santiam, Mollala and others). With each fish costing roughly $1 each to raise, this was a sizable investment for the ODFW, NOAA and other government entities. And this is not a one-time thing, it happens every year. Why you may ask? Simple – to replace wild fish runs lost due to the construction of dams.
We replace the lost fish (due to being cutoff from spawning habitat) with hatchery raised fish of similar species so that commercial and sport anglers can continue the business/sport of catching fish.
So, how’d it all work out?
For Spring Chinook, it went pretty well, we have roughly 50,000 Spring Chinook making their way back to the hatcheries they were released from. That’s a return on the investment of 1.1%. It’s the best return of Spring Chinook we’ve seen in the last five years. That’s the good news.
These returning fish at coming home to waters that are warmer and lower than typical for this time of year. Most Willamette Valley Rivers are running at 50% or less volume than historical averages. They are also running 10+ degrees warmer, causing early die off. The fish are bound to die anyway after spawning, but that doesn’t occur until August/September.
Most folks point to the ban on Gill Nets from the Mainstem Columbia as the reason for the big return of Chinook. I think it will take more than one year to claim that as a big win, but it does show promise.
For Summer Steelhead, the program isn’t working out so well. We’re seeing counts approaching 2,500 fish so far, where in a typical year, we’d see well over 10,000 to date. Rate of Return on Steelhead – a measly 0.4%.
Summer Steelhead have to hang around in the low/warm water until next spring before they spawn. Needless to say, those that have come back will have a long, hot summer.
Summer Steelhead are not native to the upper Willamette and it’s tributaries. They are an introduced/invasive species. They are derived from the Skamania River stock in Washington State. The program of planting these summer steelhead juveniles began in the late 1970’s Sure, they’re a supplement that creates angling opportunity, but, in my opinion, they are not a good replacement for what we are losing with the Wild Winter Steelhead.
When we total up what was spent over the past five years for hatchery fish, it works out to roughly $26 million. We got back 314,000 hatchery fish. Over the same 5 years, we spent $0 to get 110,000 wild fish returning to our rivers. Keep in mind though, that many of the hatchery (and wild) fish are caught in the Pacific Ocean by commercial and sport anglers before they ever get the urge to turn around and come home. Those companies are staying in business because of the big numbers of fish available from the hatchery programs. Inland, sport anglers get what is left.
As I said at the last speaking engagement I was invited too at the NW Steelheaders meeting:
“If you folks think spending $5.2 million each year and getting back $50,000 four years from now is a great deal, then pool your money and give it to me. I’ll return 4 years from now and give you back 1% of it.”
Both commercial and sport angling provide big dollars into the Pacific NW economies, but is it worth it? I have a hard time saying yes.
Let’s jump forward to the present. As usual, 5.2 million fish were released this March/April. Normally, spring rain and snowmelt would swell the rivers with fast moving water to flush those little buggers towards the saltwater where they would spend a few years growing. We didn’t get that big flush this year. Those fish didn’t get swept out to sea. They are still right here in the freshwater system where water temps in the tributaries are already reaching the mid to upper 60’s. The mainstem Willamette is already in the mid to upper 70’s at mid-day. That is less than optimal and can cause serious problems for juvenile fish.
We will see an impact 4 years from now when those juveniles that do manage to survive, return home once again. I highly doubt we see those awesome 1% returns then. I’m afraid we’ve flushed a whole lot of money down the toilet this year.
Wild fish, especially steelhead, have some diversity built into their DNA. They don’t follow the “hatchery model” and actually can decide how long to stay in freshwater and how long to stay in saltwater. This is what has allowed them to survive to rough years, drought years, floods and other naturally occurring issues. They adapt, they work around it, You can’t create that in a lab (hatchery).
Let’s take some of that money spent on raising replacement fish each year and put it to work helping the wild fish – improving/creating fish passage at dams, removing deadbeat dams, repairing spawning habitat, etc. To me, that makes more sense. But that’s just me.
Tight lines and Keep ’em wet!