Pacific Northwest
Wild Fall Chinook heading up the Columbia River to Idaho (Photo by Pacific Northwest National Lab / Flickr Creative Commons)

OR/WA - The US Has Spent More Than $2 Billion on a Plan to Save Salmon. The Fish Are Vanishing Anyway

“Despite all the efforts that we’ve done, the salmon run is looking pretty on the ropes.” Sirois said. “If it’s more difficult for hatcheries to produce salmon, it is the beginning of the end.”

The fish were on their way to be executed. One minute, they were swimming around a concrete pond. The next, they were being dumped onto a stainless steel table set on an incline. Hook-nosed and wide-eyed, they thrashed and thumped their way down the table toward an air-powered guillotine.

Hoses hanging from steel girders flushed blood through the grated metal floor. Hatchery workers in splattered chest waders gutted globs of bright orange eggs from the dead females and dropped them into buckets, then doused them first with a stream of sperm taken from the dead males and then with an iodine disinfectant.

The fertilized eggs were trucked around the corner to an incubation building where over 200 stacked plastic trays held more than a million salmon eggs. Once hatched, they would fatten and mature in rectangular concrete tanks sunk into the ground, safe from the perils of the wild, until it was time to make their journey to the ocean.

The Carson National Fish Hatchery was among the first hatcheries funded by Congress over 80 years ago to be part of the salvation of salmon, facilities created specifically to replace the vast numbers of wild salmon killed by the building of dozens of hydroelectric dams along the Northwest’s mightiest river, the Columbia. Tucked beside a river in the woods about 60 miles northeast of Portland, Carson has 50 tanks and ponds surrounded by chain-link fencing. They sit among wood-frame fish nursery buildings and a half-dozen cottages built for hatchery workers in the 1930s.

Today, there are hundreds of hatcheries in the Northwest run by federal, state and tribal governments, employing thousands and welcoming the community with visitor centers and gift shops. The fish they send to the Pacific Ocean have allowed restaurants and grocery seafood counters to offer “wild-caught” Chinook salmon even as the fish became endangered.

The hatcheries were supposed to stop the decline of salmon. They haven’t. The numbers of each of the six salmon species native to the Columbia basin have dropped to a fraction of what they once were, and 13 distinct populations are now considered threatened or endangered. Nearly 250 million young salmon, most of them from hatcheries, head to the ocean each year — roughly three times as many as before any dams were built. But the return rate today is less than one-fifth of what it was decades ago. Out of the million salmon eggs fertilized at Carson, only a few thousand will survive their journey to the ocean and return upriver as adults, where they can provide food and income for fishermen or give birth to a new generation.

Federal officials have propped up aging hatcheries despite their known failures, pouring more than $2.2 billion over the past 20 years into keeping them going instead of investing in new hatcheries and habitat restorations that could sustain salmon for the long term. At the largest cluster of federally subsidized hatcheries on the Columbia, the government spends between $250 and $650 for every salmon that returns to the river. So few fish survive that the network of hatcheries responsible for 80% of all the salmon in the Columbia River is at risk of collapse, unable to keep producing fish at meaningful levels, an investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica has found.

These failures are all the more important because hatcheries represent the U.S. government’s best effort to fulfill a promise to the Northwest’s Indigenous people. The government and tribes signed treaties in the 1850s promising that the tribes’ access to salmon, and their way of life, would be preserved. Those treaties enshrined their right to fish in their “usual and accustomed places.” The pacts between sovereign nations did not stop the U.S. from moving forward with a massive decades-long construction project in the middle of the 20th century: the building of 18 dams that transformed a free-flowing river into a machine of irrigation, shipping and hydroelectric power.

The dams meet nearly 40% of today’s regional electricity needs. But they decimated wild salmon.

Many species of salmon are at or near their lowest numbers on record. Native fishermen say their way of life has been stolen from them and from future generations. But the government didn’t invest in making hatcheries better equipped to grow more resilient and abundant stocks. Instead, officials ushered in endangered species restrictions. They knew that hatchery fish were genetically weaker than wild salmon, so they put limits on the number of hatchery fish that could be released into rivers, where they might spawn with wild fish and weaken the gene pool. These restrictions hampered the productivity of the hatcheries, squeezing tribal fishing even more.

In recent years, salmon survival has dropped to some of the worst rates on record. The numbers of returning adult salmon have been so low that dozens of hatcheries have struggled to collect enough fish for breeding, putting future fishing seasons in jeopardy.

Each passing year of poor returns worsens the outlook for salmon. While salmon runs fluctuate from year to year and this year’s returns have been higher than those of the past few years, human-caused climate change continues to warm the ocean and rivers, and the failure to improve salmon survival rates has left the region’s tribes facing a future without either wild or hatchery fish. Federal scientists project that salmon survival will decline by as much as 90% over the next 40 years.

The federal agencies responsible for more than 200 hatchery programs — including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council — have failed to implement recommendations from their own scientists about how to improve outcomes at the hatcheries they support.

Allyson Purcell is the director of West Coast hatcheries for NOAA, which oversees endangered salmon recovery, sets regulations for hatcheries and funds roughly a third of all Columbia River hatchery production. In an interview, she conceded that federal hatchery reform efforts have historically focused on saving wild salmon, but said that her agency is now researching ways to create more resilient hatchery fish.

“As soon as we have actionable science, we will implement changes,” Purcell said. She also acknowledged that hatcheries will need to change to sustain fish populations as the climate continues to change.

“We want to stay nimble,” she said. “In some cases you may want to change the goal of the hatchery. If you find that you need to rely on it to keep a population from going extinct, you’re going to operate that hatchery program differently.”

People like John Sirois, a former chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in northeast Washington, have been waiting a long time for changes. Nearly a decade ago, he cut the ribbon at the opening of the Chief Joseph Hatchery, 545 miles upriver from the mouth of the Columbia. That hatchery, one of 23 facilities overseen by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, opened in 2013.

But it is now struggling to return enough fish, and the upper Columbia’s spring Chinook population has fallen to one of its lowest levels on record. Last year the Colville Tribes, whose diet was once as much as 60% salmon, caught less than one fish for each of its 10,000 people.

“Despite all the efforts that we’ve done, the salmon run is looking pretty on the ropes.” Sirois said. “If it’s more difficult for hatcheries to produce salmon, it is the beginning of the end.”

“A Finger in a Dike”

There are many reasons that Columbia River salmon die, whether they were born in the wild or in hatcheries. Millions don’t survive their trip down the river, which has become a gantlet of dams and slackwater reservoirs, hot and polluted waters, and invasive predators. Millions more die in the ocean or get snared by commercial fishing ships, ending up as grocery fillets or pet food before they can return upriver toward their spawning grounds.

Some die-off is natural. But the dismal survival rates of salmon bred on the Columbia today are neither natural nor sustainable.

Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica examined the yearly survival of eight Columbia River Basin hatchery populations of vulnerable salmon and steelhead trout, detected at a federal dam on their way out to sea as juveniles and on their way back upriver as adults. This dam-to-dam measure provides one of the only consistent indexes of how well salmon are surviving. But it’s a high-end estimate, because it only measures how well they’re surviving in the ocean. These numbers don’t account for the millions of juvenile fish that die migrating downriver before they’re counted at the dam or the many adults who pass the dam but die before reaching their destination upriver. Our analysis of the publicly available data provides a high-level and easily understandable snapshot of hatchery performance; previously, assessing the health of the hatchery system would have required combing through thousands of pages of government reports and academic research.

Even with this generous estimate, however, the survival rates of these hatchery fish have been well short of the established goals for rebuilding salmon populations, according to the Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica analysis.

According to our analysis, salmon populations released from 2014 to 2018, the most recent years for which complete data was available, had some of the worst survival rates on record. In that time period, none of the eight populations had average returns exceeding 4%, the threshold necessary for a population to recover, which was adopted by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and vetted by independent panels of experts. But even in the previous six years, when ocean conditions were favorable for salmon, only two achieved average returns above 4%.

That 4% goal was established for wild populations, but in a 2015 report to Congress, 17 scientists recommended that survival rates of hatchery fish would have to be high relative to wild fish “to effectively contribute to harvest and/or conservation.”

Most hatcheries, however, aren’t even aiming to meet the council’s recovery goals. Some aim to get less than half a percent of their fish back. But lately, they aren’t even getting that.

“It’s not self-sustaining. We don’t have the numbers,” said Aaron Penney, a member of the Nez Perce who spent more than 20 years managing his tribe’s hatchery on the Clearwater River in Idaho. Penney, now a biologist for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in northern Idaho, says raising hatchery fish in worsening river and ocean habitat is like “putting a finger in a dike to stop a leak.”

Records obtained from NOAA show that over the past five years, dozens of hatchery programs have fallen short of their typical production levels, some by more than half. Some have tried to address that shortfall by capturing more wild fish to breed. Others used eggs that were shared by nearby hatcheries.

But major shortages across the Columbia basin in 2018 and 2019 left hatcheries scrambling to find enough egg-bearing female fish. Tribal hatcheries, which are located farther upriver where salmon face a longer, harder journey, bore the brunt. They’ve been planning for shortages to become commonplace as rivers and the Pacific Ocean get hotter.

In 2019, Idaho’s Nez Perce Tribe needed an influx of hundreds of fish from hatcheries 300 miles away in Washington to keep breeding salmon. Staff at the time called it a “dire emergency.”

In central Washington, the Yakama Nation’s share of eggs was so small that its hatchery on the Klickitat River was down to 30% of the number of fish it usually raises.

“It’s impacting the Indians a lot, man,” said Shane Patterson, a member of the Yakama Nation who fishes the Klickitat and works as a catch monitor for the tribe. “The seasons ain’t as long as they used to be, they’re smaller runs, everything.”

Between spring and fall, Patterson and his friend and fellow tribe member Chance Fiander spend evenings atop plywood scaffolds built into the rock face of the Klickitat River canyon, plunging dip nets 30 feet into the waters, awaiting the jolt of a salmon fighting its way upstream.

The Klickitat hatchery provides Patterson and Fiander fish to catch for their families and for the tribe’s longhouses, spiritual gathering centers that need salmon for weekly ceremonies, annual feasts, funerals and coming-of-age ceremonies known as name givings.

This April, there were so few spring Chinook salmon for the annual spring feast Patterson attended — held to honor the first foods of the new year — that it took donated bags of frozen salmon to feed everyone at the longhouse that day.

“That defeats the purpose. That ceremony was for that first food coming up the river,” Patterson said. “It’s just … kinda backwards.”

Power and Fish

From the very start, federal agencies had evidence of hatcheries’ failures. But they didn’t leave themselves any other solutions.

Within two decades of enshrining in treaties the right of Northwest tribes to fish for salmon as they always had, the United States government had let commercial fishing deplete salmon runs to the point that the nation’s fish commissioner was devising ways to produce more of them.

In 1872, Spencer Baird, the founder of the agency now known as NOAA Fisheries, built the West Coast’s first salmon hatchery in California and three years later recommended the same solution for the Columbia River’s problems with habitat loss and overfishing.

Baird told fishermen and cannery operators that artificial production would “maintain the present numbers indefinitely, and even … increase them.” Oregon fishing commissioners seized on the idea, declaring that salmon required less labor and care to raise than vegetables.

But the early hatchery efforts faded. By the 1920s, the first analysis of hatcheries at the time found “no evidence” to suggest hatcheries had effectively conserved salmon. Similar research reached the federal Department of Fisheries, a precursor to what is now NOAA Fisheries, in 1929. Amid the poor results and the Great Depression, state and federal fisheries agencies largely abandoned costly large-scale efforts to breed salmon.

Overfishing was the first blow to salmon populations. Dams were the biggest. Between 1933 and 1975, 18 dams were built on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Nearly half of all salmon habitat in the Columbia basin was completely blocked; the rest was drastically altered as humans turned a free-flowing river system into a series of reservoirs and built farms and communities.

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