(Photo by Dave McCoy)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
This week, the state closed the Nooksack River to fishing.
The explanation for the closure mirrored words of warning spoken here in West Seattle days earlier – many miles from the river, but close to many hearts.
(This photo & next by WSB’s Patrick Sand)
He spoke of a threat to Washington’s official state fish, wild steelhead – posed, Tomine said, by the state’s hatchery system – a system you pay for, a system involved in the new Nooksack closure, ordered because of a shortage of “eggs from returning hatchery winter steelhead (needed) to meet basin production goals.”
Sound simple? Anything but, explained Tomine, who began: “Are you guys ready to get pissed off? Because I’m pissed about this. The more I’ve found digging deeper and deeper, the more upset I get.”
What he has found, and spoke of at EWA that night, includes the tale of the fish that cost taxpayers $70,000, and much more.
Telling the story to those who filled the Emerald Water Anglers store space to hear him on December 10th, Tomine went back almost 35 years, to the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, after which, he said, “the state gave up the Toutle River for dead.”
But it wasn’t. It revived on its own, and years later yielded a big run of wild winter steelhead, 2,500 spawning there in 1987.
The nearby Kalama River, untouched by the eruption, was a different story, with its fish numbering in the hundreds, linked to a hatchery system. “It is an amazing story to me … about the power and resiliency of wild steelhead … they evolved to make up for natural disasters.”
The story, Tomine said with regret, did not end there. “Unfortunately, when the state realized the Toutle River had a viable run of fish and viable habitat, they resumed the planting program on the Toutle … the wild run responded by dwindling down and matching the Kalama.”
Next, his story leaped ahead to 1997, fishing for steelhead on the Skykomish River. One day he landed three, “one 40 1/2 by 23 inches, 28 pounds, chrome plated, black back, probably the most magnificent fish I have ever seen or will ever see.” A fly-fishing trip like that might result in two fish, catch-and-release, and it seemed, he said, like “pretty fantastic fishing …(until) I found out more … we were just fishing for crumbs, 2 to 4 percent of the historic runs. Imagine fishing more than 150,000 steelhead on the Skykomish. Those were the historic runs. I for one could take a few years, or days, of that.”
He and others were oblivious to the fact that, despite a “relatively stable habitat … the fish kept coming back in smaller and smaller numbers. In 2000, it dwindled to the point where the state felt it couldn’t even withstand catch-and-release, so they closed the river,” an order Tomine felt in his gut, “heartbreaking .. to this day, March and April go by, I feel like I should be fishing the Skykomish.”
The hatchery production “kept pumping out millions and millions of smolt,” but that didn’t help.
(Skagit River – photo by Dave McCoy)
Nor did it help on the Skagit River, Tomine said, where 15,000 fish were harvested each year before hatcheries, “a pretty sustainable number when it was a mostly wild run. (But) a funny thing happened – as hatchery production increased, the harvest declined. … By the year 2000, we were releasing up to half a million hatchery smolts into the Skagit and the harvest had decreased to 1500.” Those smolts, he said, cost more than $5 million – but resulted in a dramatic harvest decline.
Some wanted to blame a habitat issue, according to Tomine, “but scientists have told us most of the habitat destruction on the Skagit took place (more than a century ago).” And, he said, pink salmon are doing fine on the same river – “only difference, no hatchery supplementation.”
He told of yet another river “historically bountiful” for steelhead, the Eel River in Northern California. After “catastrophic floods” in the ’50s, “the state bought a hatchery … and the number of wild fish returning and overall harvest plummeted.” The hatchery was closed. Now, wild steelhead are returning to abundance there, and the money spent on hatcheries has been “reallocated to monitoring and habitat restoration – the results speak for themselves.”
So what’s the problem with hatcheries? Tomine answered that question: “(They) don’t work on a biological level – they remove the evolutionary pressure, survival of the fittest, at every one of the most critical life stages.” He compared the journey of a wild fish, hatched in gravel, moving through stages, each one with only the fittest surviving, to that of a hatchery fish, an egg fertilized in a bucket, incubated in a tray, no gravel, temperature-controlled, hand-fed after it hatches … “and so the hatchery fish have evolved into a domestic animal.” Even the timetable is unnatural, Tomine said, with all the hatchery fish reaching the smolt stage at exactly the same time, all released at once, which “creates two problems – they out-compete wild fish for habitat and food … and (go out as) a giant mass of protein,” susceptible to predators whose shadows they might mistake for that of the hatchery worker getting ready to feed them, drawing in the wild fish as part of a “smorgasbord” for predators.
Whichever ones survive are out there for a year and a half, two years, untracked, and then return: “We don’t catch them all, so many of them end up spawning with wild fish,” muddling the genetics in each generation that follows. “Every major peer-reviewed scientific study confirms the presence of hatchery fish causes an often-rapid decline in wild population.”
The federal government makes the connection too, Tomine said, “citing genetic pollution from hatchery programs as the main factor in Oregon wild-steelhead decline.”
“Hatcheries don’t work on an economic level,” either, he contended, saying declining returns lead hatchery managers “to pump out more.” Here, he cited the Nooksack River – whose closure-to-fishing order followed a few days later – with “the return down to 1/4 of 1 percent … (which) has raised the cost of a single hatchery-raised, harvested steelhead to as high as $2,700. You gotta wonder how your neighbor feels about you coming back with that one fish when you hear how much it cost.”
The decline of fisheries is economically ravaging in other ways; he recalled the “bustling communities” of Marblemount and Concrete in the ’80s, contending “you go up there now in the spring and it’s pretty much a ghost town.”
A Columbia River chinook run was notoriously estimated at $68,031 in costs for each fish harvested; Tomine estimated a gillnetter might net $80 for a 10-pound fish, so “it cost the rest of us almost $70,000 so he could make that $80. Extreme example, but it makes the point … lowest imaginable ROI of any government program out there.”
He acknowledged concern, since “a lot of our rivers only open because of hatcheries … so (if you ask) ‘if we get rid of the hatcheries, what will we fish for?’ the answer is, wild fish. Without hatchery ‘genetic pollution’ … wild fish have the chance to recover.”
He spoke of the Skeena River in British Columbia, “a world-class fishery for a lot of us … it’s become our home river because of what has happened here. The fishery there supports a $100,000,000 a year salmon economy.” And – no hatcheries. Same for the state of Montana, he said, where a biologist discovered the effect of “hatchery fish planted in rivers with wild populations” and “waged a lonely battle to convince people” … eventually, hatchery production was stopped in 1974, “and we now have the crown jewel of North America trout fishing.”
Tomine also noted a hatchery built with City of Seattle money “to supplement the Lake Washington sockeye run – they knew all this science, and yet they built it anyway, despite the fact that sockeyes are not historically a major run (there) – it’s popular.”
He acknowledged that some taxpayers don’t seem to mind, suggesting “the spending is OK because sport fishermen are supporting the hatcheries.” But it’s money, he suggested, that could be better spent elsewhere: “The state is saying it’s broke, doesn’t have the money for basics, and yet we spend $56 million for hatcheries that (aren’t working biologically or economically). This is one place where I feel environmentalists and the Tea Party are going to wind up on the same side.”
So if this does spark concern – what can the average person do?
“It’s going to take all of us getting activated if we really want to have steelhead and salmon in our future. First, we need to tell our non-fishing friends what they’re paying for our recreation.” He said he believes that once average taxpayers hear what’s being spent for something that seems to be creating problems rather than solving them, resulting concern/outrage could lead to action.
There is already action on some organized fronts, such as the Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit settled with the state earlier this year (here’s the state’s version of the announcement), keeping hatchery-bred early winter steelhead out of some waterways for a dozen years: “This is the best news that wild steelhead fishermen have had in my lifetime; this is really our only hope.” (A bit later, Wild Fish Conservancy’s executive director Kurt Beardslee joined him at the front of the room. He warned that one bit of fallout from the lawsuit is a movement toward using the hatcheries to turn “wild” fish into broodstock and said that’s not what they intended at all – “we have to keep habitat intact and let wild fish do what wild fish do.”)
Overall, Tomine said, “We need to write, e-mail, contact our elected officials and demand that they pay attention to the science and stop wasting our money.” (In response to a question later, he warned that elected officials might not even be aware of the situation, so your question/concern might be educational.)
Tomine acknowledged that your reaction might be, “‘OK, I believe what (he’s) saying, but can’t we keep things the way they are now?,'” but, he reiterated, “returns of hatchery fish trend toward zero over time as well, (so) eventually there will be no wild fish and no hatchery fish at all and there will be no fish at all forever, and forever is a long, long time.”
He later also noted the conundrum of a “fly-fishing business sponsoring a talk about something that would keep a lot of us from fishing for a while” – if hatcheries were taken out of the mix altogether – but as EWA proprietor McCoy said a short time after that, he wants “to enlighten the public as to what the truth is – right now, there’s a lot of truth NOT (coming to light).”
If you see this story shortly after its publication at midday Saturday, December 20th, note that Emerald Water Anglers (42nd/Oregon) is hosting Santa photos until 2 pm today for donations to the Wild Steelhead Coalition. Also note that it hosts frequent talks and seminars in its recently opened retail space – check the calendar here, and keep an eye on ours, where we will list many of them too.