Hatching suits

On the 18th of May 1980, Mount Saint Helens blew its top...

On the 18th of May 1980, Mount Saint Helens blew its top. The eruption also sent super heated mudflows down the main stem of the Toutle River.

The Toutle was a highly prized salmon stream with a robust run of steelhead. Steelhead spawn in the spring of the year, mostly in April and May. The steelhead ripening and spawning in the river at the time of the cataclysm were fried. Those that entered later that spring would have perished. There were some reports that Toutle steelhead entered the nearby Kalama River and spawned, but these were probably apocryphal.

The general expectation was that the Toutle would be barren of steelhead and other species of Pacific Salmon for a century. Five years later approximately 2000 wild steelhead returned to the river. Three years later an estimated 2200 steelhead spawned in the Toutle’s South Fork. Steelhead are tough enough to withstand a devastating eruption and the consequent pyroclastic tides, but not, it appears, tough enough to withstand artificial enhancement.

Eager to assist the repopulation of the Toutle by wild steelhead, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) began planting hatchery reared summer steelhead in the river’s south fork. This was a well-meaning but misguided initiative undertaken about five years before a handful of concerned fishery biologists and conservation based organizations began to question the outcomes of hatchery production on the reproductive success of fish.

This opposition did not get much traction until the turn of the century when enormous breakthroughs in the science surrounding DNA enabled genetic studies that pointed to the conclusion that hatchery stocking was deleterious to wild fish in the first generation and the damage of this genetic pollution was magnified in succeeding generations. A dramatic example of this insidious phenomenon is provided by the steelhead of the Toutle which at latest reckoning are down to a mere 500 individuals.

Despite the fact that the only constant is change, and the corollary that adapting to and embracing it is the only sensible reaction to it, the fisheries managers in Washington and Oregon have supported the status quo. Faced with this resistance, a non-profit NGO called the Wild Fish Conservancy filed suit against the WDFW for violating the Endangered Species Act on the grounds that hatcheries were the cause of unauthorized mortality on wild steelhead stocks. As result of the suit, the WDFW agreed to curtail almost all its early timed hatchery steelhead plants into the rivers flowing into Puget Sound for the next two and half years, and to release none into the Skagit River for 12 years. Wild fish advocates view this last provision as an important coup since it will enable a study encompassing three generations of steelhead that will provide vital information on the potential for the management of wild steelhead exclusively.

The management of fish in Washington State and Oregon is growing increasingly litigious. The Wild Fish Conservancy suit is one of many that, it is to be hoped, will move the management of fish in those states toward that of Montana where fish managers conducted public education campaigns in concert with a program that got rid of hatchery trout.

Fortunately, the fisheries staffs of our provincial Ministry of the Environment have for generations generally resisted the siren call of hatchery augmentation. True, there have been hesitant ventures into the world of artificial enhancement, but in the main the provincial fisheries policy has subscribed to the notion that nature doesn’t say one thing and logic another and has striven to protect wild stocks of steelhead, sea going Cutthroat Trout, and various species of char unless a specific race of fish is facing extinction.

Sadly, the same thing cannot be said for Federal Fisheries whose charge are the other Pacific salmon species. Our civil servants at DFO operate no fewer than 20 salmon hatcheries in the face of mounting evidence that hatcheries are biologically bankrupt and may well represent the single greatest threat to the health of the stocks.

Though it doesn’t represent the same kind of fundamental threat to species integrity as the other hatcheries, the Babine spawning channels at Pinkut Creek and Fulton River in concert with sloppy management practice enable the continuance of an ecologically unsound net fishery that ultimately undermines the biological diversity of Skeena Salmon stocks including the diversity of the very species it seeks to enhance. The reason this deplorable situation, and hatcheries in general, are allowed to continue is a result of a phenomenon know as regulatory capture, a form of corruption that occurs when a regulatory agency that has a mandate to act in the public interest advances the commercial or special concerns of the interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.

DFO’s relation to the fishing industry is a text book case of regulatory capture. And, now the institution is cozying up to fish farmers.

When First Nations, emboldened by the recent decision of the Supreme Court, take a similar approach as fish advocates in Washington and file suit against the federal institution that destroyed their fishery in the first instance, and have acted against their interest since then, this will change.