Standing Up for Wild Fish

Speaking-up for wild salmon

Preface. This little story is not an effort to beat a proverbial dead horse.  It is not about good guys and bad guys.  It is just about ordinary people being people, three decades ago.

I write this story now, so my sons might read it to me when I’m in a nursing home, mumbling about Clouser Minnows while being spoon-fed my morning oatmeal.  I tell it so people will understand how slowly some fish management changes have been implemented.  I tell it so, maybe, the dialogue regarding managing hatchery and wild salmon will be conducted with the benefit of understanding where we have come from and where we need to go.  Hope you know what I mean, because it sounds pretty obscure.

I remember a career-threatening event that occurred in 1977. An article had been published in Salmon Trout Steelheader or some similar magazine – a expose’ about state and federal fish management agencies cutting-off natural spawning areas upstream from hatcheries.  I think the article was principally addressing fish-passage barriers at hatcheries on Columbia River tributaries.

In Oregon, it was a traditional practice wherever practical, to build a barrier dam of some sort at the hatchery, preventing passage of adult salmon or steelhead.  This was done because the hatcheries typically took water directly from the river, and water taken into the hatchery would carry disease organisms shed by salmon and steelhead that had spawned upriver from the hatchery.

I was fresh out of Oregon State University, working in a temporary position studying wild trout in the Willamette Valley; I got fired up reading the article. I now realize that my indignation became the object of great humor and entertainment for the experienced biologists who worked in the Research Division.

I fumed. They goaded me.  “This is just wrong.” I sputtered.  “Of course it’s wrong,” they incited.  What data do we have to prove the benefit of blocking fish passage at hatcheries,” I asked, suspecting that fish management agencies relied as much on anecdote as on data. “You should ask them for the data,” my more experienced co-workers suggested, probably smirking behind my back. “Why don’t we treat the water and let fish spawn upriver anyway,” I asked the lunchroom audience.  “Because it’s easier to block fish passage than install expensive water treatment equipment,” they replied, savoring the daily escalation in my devotion to this cause.

Properly gauging my level of angst over the wrongs being inflicted on wild salmon by these fish passage barriers, a savvy biologist made a simple suggestion.  “Why don’t you write a memo, Jay,” he said, a look of innocence on his face.  I jumped on it.  I hand-scribed a scathing memo to the Chief of the Hatchery Division, handed it to our secretarial assistant, proofed her draft, signed the edited letter, and put it in the Main Office mail slot for the courier to deliver.

I asked the Hatchery Division Chief to list all the places where hatcheries blocked passage to natural spawning areas.  I asked for data on disease incidence at hatcheries with and without such barriers.  I enquired about treatment options for hatchery water.  I lectured about how it was wrong to prejudicially favor hatchery production over natural production.  I was righteous.

My elder peers smiled knowingly when I dropped my memo into the mail slot.  They knew the system.  I was providing entertainment.

I never received a response from the fellow who was in charge of the hatcheries.

The Research Division Chief called me into his office and very kindly explained that my buddies had been having fun at my expense, that his assistant should have known better than to let me send the memo, and that it (the memo) might have unintended consequences on my career, but probably wouldn’t cause me any real harm.  He offered very sincerely to personally broker future issues within the agency chain-of-command, to see what he could do if I was concerned about other management issues, and suggested that I could probably have my hands full just keeping up with my research anyway and wouldn’t it be better to leave management matters to the managers.

Years later, I learned that the Hatchery Division Chief had raged when he received my memo.  He was not happy to be challenged by someone within the agency on this issue.  I also learned that he confused me with another research scientist as originator of the memo:  he confused Jay Nicholas, a just-hired, seasonal worker, with Tom Nickelson, a permanent, Research Project Supervisor.

Close call.

And what about fish passage above hatcheries today? Many of the fish racks have been dismantled, or are in the process of being torn down, or are being replaced with weirs that will allow selective upstream passage of naturally produced salmon or steelhead, confining hatchery fish below the natural spawning areas.

It took decades to implement these changes. Today, there are fish managers who still don’t want anadromous fish above a hatchery where they could spread disease to the hatchery fish.  There are fish managers, also, who accurately recognize that hatcheries are disease factories that threaten wild fish populations.

The balancing act is different in 2010 than it was in 1977. I think that more people on the inside and on the outside of the management agencies realize that hatcheries should be managed cautiously, that great efforts should be made to sustain native wild Pacific salmon populations.

Yet the dilemma of managing hatcheries in a way that they do not harm our best  wild fish populations continues.


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