Hatchery Salmon Are Trained to Be Dysfunctional

Research has often shown that hatchery salmon perform less well than their wild counterparts.  The reason for this has often been attributed to genetic factors such as parent selection or to the lack of opportunity for Mother Nature to cull misfits.

Recent research indicates that poor performance of hatchery fish may stem more from the their environmental experiences than from their genetics.  Some older theories that suggested that hatchery fish were just raised dumb now have gained a new following.  New research from Canada suggests that atypical food and feeding combined with overcrowding in hatcheries weakens inherent genetic abilities to cope with the natural environment.

In California’s Central Valley, we have added the burden of releasing hatchery smolts late in the natural emigration season outside of peak flow periods, into warmer waters that are full of other fish that want to eat them.  When the salmon from the hatcheries get hungry,  there is no flood of fresh food pellets.  Their new environment results in starvation, thermal stress, and much higher vulnerability to predation.  Still, hatchery fish make up 70-90% of California’s salmon runs, because Valley habitats no longer support historic levels of wild salmon production.

In recent posts, I have advocated raising hatchery fry in Valley floodplain habitats.  UC Davis studies have shown high rates of growth of hatchery fry raised in flooded rice fields during the winter.  New planning efforts call for more flooded Valley habitats, including rice fields, but these efforts focus primarily on wild juvenile salmon.  There has been no testing to date of the performance of hatchery fry that rear under controlled floodplain conditions.  In light of the recent Canadian research, the ability of floodplain-reared hatchery fish to survive, and the degree to which they stray, warrant evaluation.

Annual Runs in the Back Yard

Last week, the annual arrival of cedar waxwings hit my back yard near Sacramento. Each January, these magnificent birds fill my small back yard by the hundreds to feast for several days on the fermented fruit of three tall grape trees. The birds eat nearly every grape, likely a ton of fruit hanging from the branches. In several days the birds are gone, not to return for another year. I often wonder how important my little backyard piece of habitat is for this population of Cedar Waxwings, and how much of their winter energy comes from this small crop of fruit.

The birds remind me of another annual backyard run, the Cook Inlet Coho and Chinook salmon near Anchorage, Alaska, where I lived for three years in the mid-1980s. A large run of Coho showed up right on time each year at the end of summer in a creek that was literally in my back yard. Only kids were allowed to fish the city’s creeks for salmon, so I taught the neighborhood’s boys, including my 12-year-old son, how to catch and release the Coho. For a week or two, they could catch five or so bright ten-pounders in an hour or two a day. Me, I canoed down a tidal creek on the Kenai Peninsula side of the inlet and camp for a weekend to fish the fresh Coho run entering from the Inlet. I built a blind right on the creek within sight of the inlet. I could see the white backs of dozens of Beluga whales herding and feeding on the incoming salmon just a few dozen yards off the creek mouth. At night, the Coho approached the light of my Coleman lantern, even allowing a brief pet or two on my part, while maintaining steady and wary eye contact.

In the spring (late May), I often hitched a plane ride across the inlet (10 minutes and $40) to fish the spring Chinook run for a weekend of 24-hour daylight. At low tide, the small rivers were over 30-ft below the tule-lined channel. At high tide, the channel filled to the tules, along with seemingly bank-to-bank 30-lb spring-run salmon that obligingly hit any lure I put in front of them. This annual rush of spring Chinook lasted for a week or two before the fish moved upstream to await their late summer spawn.

Today, thirty years later, things are not so good. After 30 years of increasingly intense subsistence, personal use,1 sport, and commercial fishing pressure, and most importantly severe ecological drought, the salmon runs have sharply declined. No doubt global warming has hit Alaska worse than other parts of North America, with high temperatures and low precipitation.2

Many of the streams are now closed to fishing. Where open, the annual bag limit of Chinook is only one fish per year. The Cook Inlet Beluga that once numbered in the thousands are down to several hundred and were listed as endangered in 2008. This decline occurred despite the fact that much of the habitat remains virtually pristine and untouched by man, with little influence of hatcheries. Global warming, overfishing, natural cycles, or ocean conditions: no one knows the cause for sure. Regardless, Alaska’s fish agencies must now manage its fisheries very conservatively with intensive adaptive management science. If you asked these agencies, they would say they had already been doing that for decades. They would also admit they learned a hard lesson. For more on their situation see:
http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=wildlifenews.view_article&articles_id=516 .

  1. Each state resident family could use a gillnet in the Inlet to catch 50 salmon per year for “personal use”.
  2. https://nccwsc.usgs.gov/content/ecological-drought-alaska

Bringing Back the Klamath Salmon

Restored tributary spring creek of Scott River, Klamath River tributary, with abundant juvenile Coho salmon. (See YouTube video for underwater view of countless juvenile Coho salmon rearing in this creek.)

Restored tributary spring creek of Scott River, Klamath River tributary, with abundant juvenile Coho salmon. (See YouTube video for underwater view of countless juvenile Coho salmon rearing in this creek.)

A recent post on the KCET website by Alastair Bland spoke of efforts to save salmon on the Klamath River. I add my perspective in this post.

I have been involved in the Klamath salmon restoration on and off for nearly 30 years. In my experience, the runs of salmon and steelhead keep declining because not enough gets done and because there is lack of progressive management. The Klamath is a big watershed (Figure 1). I tried to sit in the middle of one element of the process a few years ago on the Scott and Shasta Rivers, the Klamath’s two main upstream salmon tributaries below Iron Gate Dam. I found there were not just two sides involved in conflict, but really five: tribes, government agencies, ranchers-landowners, a power company, and environmentalists. There were even sides within sides. The four tribes often did not agree or work together. The four fish agencies often could not agree. The two states did not always agree, and individual state agencies disagree, resulting in conflicting water rights, water use, and water quality regulations. Counties and cities disagree. Neighboring Resource Conservation Districts differ in approaches. Many citizens want a new state carved from the two states. Some landowners love salmon and beavers, and others do not. Then there are the big watershed owners: private timber companies, US Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management that manage forest watersheds differently under a wide variety of regulations and approaches that often do not protect salmon. I watched county sheriffs try to lead landowners in policy and enforcement, with a willingness to enforce vague trespassing rules on rivers and creeks. I watched as State Water Resources Control Board members toured watersheds and met with tribes and local leaders in an effort to resolve conflicts in over-appropriated watersheds. I watched as CDFW staff tried to enforce stream channel degradation and water diversion regulations on private and public lands.

While some progress gets made, it is too slow to save the native fish. Coho and spring-run Chinook are hanging on but slowly going extinct. Fall-run Chinook are supported by hatcheries but still declining. The iconic Klamath and Trinity Steelhead are silently and slowly fading away.

For decades, the various sides have waged war over water, dams, and property rights. The watersheds and fish have suffered as “Rome” burned. Some folks have worked hard to save what is left (e.g., Blue Creek watershed). Over the decades many battles have been waged and much compromised. Lawsuits abound. Commercial and sport fishing get constrained more and more each year. Fewer California residents make the trip north to fish the Klamath each year.

There remain many intractable problems that may never be resolved. The upper watershed in Oregon, mainly around Klamath Lake and the Sprague River, suffers greatly from agricultural development and attendant water quality issues that are unlikely to go away. Much watershed damage has already occurred from timber cutting, urban and agricultural development, roads, fires, and floods. Global warming will continue to reduce rainfall and essential over-summer snowpack throughout the Klamath watershed.

Despite the grim outlook, I have found there are a host of potential actions that can help even before we get to the long-awaited four-dam removal. We need to stop the bleeding, save the patient, and start recovery. Many of the treatments and tools are already available. Some are willingly provided by Mother Nature (e.g., water and beavers). There are many diverse efforts and treatments already underway on a small scale that can be expanded and coordinated. Lessons learned can be better shared.

image2To get the process moving faster, I offer the following recommendations:

  1. Move toward making the Klamath tributaries, the Salmon, Scott, and Shasta rivers, salmon sanctuaries like Blue Creek on the lower Klamath, an effort being coordinated by the Yurok Tribe. Allow the Karuk Tribe to coordinate on the Salmon River (give them a grant to do this). On the Scott and Shasta Rivers, allow ranchers to coordinate. The Nature Conservancy is already involved in the Shasta River, as Western Rivers Conservancy is in the Blue Creek Sanctuary.
  2. Re-adjudicate water rights and water quality standards on the Scott and Shasta rivers. I know these are “fighting words”, but it must be done now. At least start this process, starting with the State’s new groundwater regulations. Vital portions of both rivers sit dry much of the year from surface diversions and groundwater extraction. Hundreds of thousands of young salmon and steelhead literally dry up every spring and summer, including tens of thousands of endangered Coho salmon. State laws prohibit this, as do State Board regulations, yet it continues on a large scale. Make the State enforce the laws.
  3. List Klamath spring-run Chinook as a federal and state endangered fish. They have become extinct from the Scott and Shasta rivers in my lifetime. They hold on in the Salmon River. They need and deserve full protection of the state and federal endangered species acts.
  4. Fully implement federal and state recovery plans for salmon and steelhead. Get funding.
  5. Re-introduce Coho and spring-run Chinook salmon to tributaries where populations are or are near extinction, including tributaries above dams.
  6. Rehabilitate hatchery programs on the Klamath and Trinity rivers. Develop conservation hatchery elements within these existing programs to promote wild genetic strains of salmon and steelhead in the tributaries.
  7. Reconnect the upper Shasta River to allow salmon and steelhead access. This process was started by the Nature Conservancy and tribes, but is long delayed and unfunded.
  8. Fully fund and implement a salmon and steelhead rescue program for young stranded in tributary spawning rivers.
  9. Improve access of spawning salmon and steelhead to historic spawning grounds blocked or hindered by irrigation dams, road crossings, or low streamflow.
  10. Ensure the ongoing development of the Klamath-Trinity Coho Salmon Biological Opinion for operation of the Shasta-Trinity Division of the federal Central Valley Project adequately protects and helps restore the endangered Coho salmon.
  11. Require the California Resources Agency to take a leadership role in making the Klamath a priority.
Figure 1. Klamath watershed. (Source DOI.)

Figure 1. Klamath watershed. (Source DOI.)

For more on the Klamath recovery see the following:

Salmon Drought Plan – there is no plan

A Salmon Drought Plan (with implementation) is badly needed. For the past two years, what we had instead was delayed reaction, an ad hoc hodge-podge of underfunded bandaid actions that didn’t come close to protecting salmon. The state and federal agencies called this “real-time” response. Huge injury to salmon resources occurred, and the triage center was a dysfunctional “Mash” unit.

Subtitle C of Section 421 of H.R. 2983, Congressman Huffman’s bill1 on drought assistance and improved water supply reliability, provides for preparation of a California Salmon Drought Plan and $3,000,000 for implementation. The measures in the bill would be a reasonable beginning:

(a) SALMON DROUGHT PLAN.—Not later than January 1, 2016, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service shall, in consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, prepare a California salmon drought plan. The plan shall investigate options to protect salmon populations originating in the State of California, contribute to the recovery of populations listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), and contribute to the goals of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (Public Law 102–575). The plan shall focus on actions that can aid salmon populations during the driest years. Strategies investigated shall include—
(1) relocating the release location and timing of hatchery fish to avoid predation and temperature impacts;
(2) barging of hatchery release fish to improve survival and reduce straying;
(3) coordinating with water users, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the California Department of Water Resources regarding voluntary water transfers, to determine if water released upstream to meet the needs of downstream or South-of-Delta water users can be managed in a way that provides additional benefits for salmon;

(4) hatchery management modifications, such as expanding hatchery production of listed fish during the driest years, if appropriate;
(5) increasing rescue operations of upstream migrating fish; and
(6) improving temperature modeling and related forecasted information to predict water management impacts to salmon and salmon habitat with a higher degree of accuracy than current models.

However, Congressman Huffman’s bill, proposed as part of an alternative to still-pending legislation that would make conditions for fish worse, has not moved forward.

Why is it left to a California congressman to try to get a drought salmon program going? The state and federal resource agencies have huge staffs that are more than capable of taking action and immediately preparing a joint plan of action. Government grant programs have funded numerous NGO scientists who could participate. The state has a drought plan for cities and farms. Why isn’t there one that protects the state’s salmon resources? CDFW’s drought planning effort is outdated.2 There is no federal plan. For the past two years, the fisheries agencies have simply concurred with every Temporary Urgency Change Petition to weaken fish protections coming from the California Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation, leaving protection of resources to the State Water Board (which also failed to step up).

California needs a salmon drought plan now.

Wild Salmon – A Superfood

salmon for dinnerRecently, I had fresh, wild, troll-caught1 Coho from Costco ($4.99/lb whole) with wild rice and fresh strawberry walnut salad. The salmon was truly delicious as is the usual case with fresh, wild, troll-caught salmon.

Wild salmon like this is a “Super Food”.

“Salmon is a great source of protein and is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which are associated with a healthy heart and brain function. Look for wild salmon to get the biggest health boost.” http://partnersinhealth.kaiserpermanente.org/july-2015/national/10-superfoods-that-pack-a-nutritional-punch-nat-july2015#sthash.hUM61ZOx.dpuf.

“Fatty ocean fish such as salmon and tuna are high in omega-3 fatty acids and can help reduce cholesterol levels, especially when you eat fish instead of saturated fats from red meats. Herring, trout and sardines are also high in omega-3s. Fish is also high in protein and minerals.”

Having wild salmon available in markets is a very strong reason for upgrading the Central Valley Fall Run Chinook Salmon hatchery program, as I have advocated in earlier posts. Demand for salmon will be increasing as more and more Californians become health conscious. With the public recognition that farmed salmon are not “wild” salmon, there will be further pressure to increase production of “wild”, “free range” salmon in our coastal waters. Central Valley salmon hatcheries can help meet this need.

Approximately 90% of the coastal “wild, free-range” salmon come from the many federal, state, and tribal hatcheries on Pacific Coast rivers.

However, hatchery salmon and the fisheries they support can be a threat to native non-hatchery wild salmon runs, many of which have been listed as threatened or endangered under federal and state endangered species acts. Fishery harvest pressure on these non-hatchery “wild” salmon like the listed Winter Run and Spring Run Chinook of the Sacramento River, potentially put these runs at greater risk of extinction. With the greater risk comes fishery restrictions and less harvest of hatchery salmon, and the need for careful planning and management of the hatchery programs and fishery harvest. Harvest can be focused on times and locations where endangered salmon are least frequently present, but often this may not be possible. Other measures such as gear and catch restrictions, terminal fisheries, and mark-selective fisheries could be employed, making it possible to “have our salmon and eat them too!”

  1. Troll-caught salmon are from regulated commercial fisheries in coastal waters from California to Alaska. They are caught live on trolling lines (in contrast to gill nets) and placed immediately on ice. I avoid purchasing “wild” salmon products from Russia or China that are available in grocery stores, because they come from “unregulated” fisheries, possibly even illegally from North American waters. Gill nets up to 50-miles long have been found fishing in ocean waters. I never purchase farmed salmon, which have little of the nutritional benefits of wild salmon.