“Elwha River salmon, steelhead better off without hatcheries” (and the problem with ‘benchmarks’)

"Benchmarks" (in flux) table... "could you get me a new coffee?" asks the manager on the right...


This is a rather interesting article out of a Seattle paper:

With the dams being removed, a massive hatchery program threatens to impede effective use of the millions spent to open up the river and help salmon and steelhead runs recover.

… interesting if you’re into this sort of thing. Although I suppose it’s more opinion piece than article… as it carries a clear bias.

This summer, the longawaited dam removal on the Elwha River finally gets underway, marking the culmination of a two-decade effort toward restoring salmon to one of Washington’s most pristine rivers. The Elwha, in many ways, is a chance to rewrite history, undoing a century of destruction wrought by two dams that block migrating salmon from 90 miles of their historic habitat.

By all accounts, removing the dams from the Elwha watershed is an extraordinary opportunity, one that will bring about the rebirth of a river, which was once home to some of the largest Chinook ever documented and where a 65-pound salmon was more the norm than a rarity. Throughout their evolutionary history, wild salmon and steelhead have recovered from a range of catastrophic disturbances.

Curious language this…”rewrite history”… “recovered from catastrophic disturbances“.

“Rewrite history”… maybe a bit of hyperbole here… does that mean colonization of the Pacific Northwest? the massive commercial fisheries of the last 120 years or so? (probably not…)

On one hand, ‘catastrophic disturbances‘ is about exactly right though…

As, much of north-western North America was under a kilometre or so of ice some several thousands of years ago. Theories suggest that during the last period of great ice sheets — some 12K to 18K years ago — wild Pacific salmon hung out south of the Columbia River all the way down into Mexico; northwestern Alaska, Yukon, and current Bering Sea in the area known as Beringia; and in various ice-free refuge areas (e.g. northeastern Haida Gwaii, Brooks Peninsula on western Vancouver Is., etc.).

The salmon runs ‘recorded’ since European contact were still potentially on a ‘recovery’ track as the landscape ‘recovered’ from so much ice, melt, and glacial retreat.

So…  “recovered from catastrophic disturbance”?

See, “recover” means ‘to restore to a normal state’ or ‘to get back again’.

What is the ‘normal state‘ for salmon in any particular river?

How do we know when wild salmon populations have “recovered“?

What’s the “benchmark”? (as scientists and corporatists like to say)

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The article continues:

Despite the capacity of these fish to recover naturally, state, federal, and tribal fisheries managers are poised to squander the opportunity. They’ve opted to build a $16 million hatchery that will flood the river with more than 4 million juvenile salmon and steelhead each year, including more Chinook and steelhead than are released on the entire northern coast of Oregon.

This is despite 20 years of research demonstrating conclusively that hatchery fish are a major contributor to the decline of wild salmon in our region.

Now there’s a hotly debated statement…

Last spring I attended an international conference in Portland, OR hosted by “The State of the Salmon” organization: Ecological Interactions between Wild & Hatchery Salmon.

Ecological Interactions postcard

This very issue was batted back and forth across the North Pacific and north and south up the western North American coast.

Folks in the lower 48 largely curse hatcheries. Folks in Alaska sing the praises as they have multi-million dollar investments in ‘ocean-ranching’ programs.

Folks in Japan absolutely rely on hatchery/ocean-ranching programs for about 95% of their domestic catch.

And the Russians are apparently sitting on somewhere near $2 billion to start massive hatchery programs along their coastline.

(And Canadians… well… we just apologize and say “maybe this, maybe that”… “ooops sorry, my fault…your salmon spawned with mine, but i’m still sorry”)

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The article:

Domestication alters salmon so dramatically that a recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) revealed that even when hatchery fish are only one generation removed from the wild, wild fish produce approximately twice as many offspring as their hatchery counterparts. The current plan on the Elwha will domesticate a majority of the remaining wild salmon in the basin, reducing their productivity, and threatening their ability to build locally adapted, abundant wild populations.

Despite all the public interest, decisions on the Elwha recovery plan have been made largely without public input, driven instead by the millions of dollars set aside for a misguided and counterproductive hatchery. Meanwhile, research and monitoring critical in tracking the progress of the recovery remains woefully underfunded. The recovery plan claims that hatchery releases will be phased out as wild fish recover in the watershed, yet to date no benchmarks for wild recovery have been set, giving hatchery managers a blank check to continue harmful hatchery programs in perpetuity.

Oh, oh… there’s that benchmark thing. Scientists and ‘managers’ and money managers love benchmarks. (and of course there’s that ‘decisions made without public input’ thing as well…)

The problem with ‘benchmarks‘ when it comes to wild salmon populations is the point I raised above… how do we know when things have “recovered”?

What is the ‘normal state’ for salmon in the Elwha?

Or for any river for that fact… the Fraser, the Columbia, the Skeena…?

So where do we establish the ‘benchmarks’?

And what the hell does benchmark mean? (visit an older post to see)

‘Setting a benchmark’ is a term from carpentry, for building tables and chairs… not for setting arbitrary numbers to define success in ‘rebuilding’ salmon populations… (or measuring corporate success for that fact…)

And the bigger problem with ‘benchmarks’… they’re always based on the past.

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The point here isn’t necessarily to criticize the writers of the article or the points they make, as many I tend to agree with… more to question the assumptions that lie behind much of the statements made.

(and for a continued interesting read, if you’re into this sort of thing, read the comments to the article).

The assumptions that lie behind this article, are very common assumptions in the salmon world.

They are prevalent in the current $20 million+ federal public inquiry: Cohen Commission into Fraser River sockeye declines. For example, how can we know the extent of the devastation that humans have wrought on Fraser sockeye populations if we have no ‘normal state’ to compare against?

… or can’t ever agree on what a normal state was? Let alone what the historical populations were in the 20th century.

How do we set “rebuilding goals” or “restoration benchmarks” (beware of preceding bumpf…) — if we don’t know what a steady state might be?

Oh right… we’ll use our assumptions to measure “productive habitat” — for example, this many metres squared of gravel means this many fish will successfully spawn, and this many young will return as adults…

yeah whatever… I call bullshit.

We just don’t know.

In the last 150 years, we have intervened to such a scale, around every corner, across every inch of water that wild salmon inhabit, that we just don’t know what “normal” is.

Was it ever ‘normal’… or… is constant flux — normal?

If we’re “benchmarking” how stable do you think your table would be if someone kept changing the length of the other three legs?

Or, if while you’re cutting to one benchmark, someone is shaking the sawhorse wildly back and forth, or the piece of wood you’re trying to cut?

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There comes a time when I agree with the sentiment of some of the comments to this particular article.

Leave well enough alone.

Rivers of the Pacific Northwest can become naturally dammed by debris flows and mudslides and volcanoes. Eventually the dam releases and all the gravel and sediment blasts downstream. Fish populations are mutilated for years, but eventually a certain dynamic equilibrium (e.g. constant flux) is met, fish populations thrive, bears are happy, etc.

Hatcheries are essentially little more than warm milk and cookies.

They’re comfort food to make us feel better after obliterating fish species in the first place… or simply to support an economic benchmark.

Wild salmon runs recovered from Ice Age(s)… they’ll probably recover this latest scourge as well.




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