Native Fish Threatened by Fish Hatcheries

A 25 pound chinook salmon on Oregon coast from six years ago.  This is what's at risk.

A 25 pound chinook salmon on Oregon coast from six years ago.
This is what’s at risk.

Fish hatcheries are damaging fish populations in the Pacific Northwest. That was the essence of an Associated Press report last week, highlighting what people have known for years, as well as a reminder of Montana’s major policy change 40 years ago.

In the Pacific Northwest, lawsuits have been filed against the fish hatchery culture that has done so much to weaken or destroy native salmon and steelhead populations along the West Coast.

Repeated studies have demonstrated that hatchery fish released into the West Coast’s salmon and steelhead rivers harm native fish. Hatchery programs produce fish that are less capable of natural reproduction, and when hatchery-raised fish are dumped into rivers, the huge influx of fish overwhelms native fish.

Fans of native fish advocate that more needs to be done to improve conditions for wild fish. It won’t be easy, as one of the biggest culprits in loss of wild salmon and steelhead populations is the network of dams on west coast rivers. There are also long-standing commitments to Native American tribes that fish will be available. There are some 400 fish hatcheries along the west coast, including 180 in the Columbia River basin.

This brings to mind that this year will mark the 40th anniversary of a historical policy change in Montana.

In 1974 the State of Montana shocked the nation. It stopped stocking trout in streams and rivers that support wild trout populations. This decision didn’t make everybody happy. Lots of people figured that Mother Nature needed help in stocking fish in our streams.

Our part of southwest Montana certainly subscribed to this idea that if we wanted to catch fish we first had to put them in the river. A couple years ago, a friend, Jim Gleason, shared some records that his father saved, showing fish stocking in our area through efforts of the Butte Anglers Club, as well as several other rod and gun clubs.

In a call for the Butte Anglers Club annual meeting for March 1927, the notice proclaimed, “Organized 1902, 8,486,000 game fish planted in 1926, 1567 members.” With help of the state fish hatchery in Anaconda that supplied eggs, a fish hatchery at the Columbia Gardens produced 1.5 million rainbow trout and 190,000 “natives,” presumably meaning cutthroat trout. In addition, the state hatchery reported plantings of brook trout, grayling and “natives.”

From the standpoint of what we know now, it’s easy to be critical of these anglers of the Roaring 20s and their penchant for dumping millions of hatchery fish in the Big Hole River and other area streams. But that was the culture of the times.

Dick Vincent, a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks fisheries biologist, imitated studies on the Madison River in the 1960s, trying to come up with answers as to why some stretches of the river consistently had more fish than others. In several studies, he established that areas that received regular plantings of hatchery fish had lower fish populations than those that didn’t get stocked. On the other hand, in stretches where planting was discontinued, numbers of fish rose dramatically.

In a 2004 interview with Montana Outdoors magazine, Vincent noted that it might seem unusual to change policies on just a few years of data, “but the numbers from the study were off the charts.” By the end of 1973, FWP and the FWP Commission, after extensive hearings, decided that stocking no longer made sense and in 1974 stopped stocking rivers and streams, though it didn’t happen everywhere all at once.

Vincent also pointed out that another result of discontinuing stocking is that anglers started paying attention to the waters. Before, “anglers didn’t care about stream flows and river habitat, because if the fishing was poor, you just tossed in more fish. But if you wanted to catch big, wild fish, you need to fight for water and habitat.”

It was a hard lesson to learn, but one that needs to be remembered if we’re going to save salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest.

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