Fooling with fundamentals

This week, our columnist Rob Brown looks to the sky to find answers about the water

A lot of people think fish hatcheries are a good idea. There’s a fish hatchery on the Vedder River. There’s a fish hatchery on the Kitimat River. Skill testing question: What are the two most heavily fished rivers in BC? Answer: the Vedder and the Kitimat, in that order. Why? Well, simply put, the people that produce hatchery fish want the fish they fostered killed before those fish can pollute wild salmon with genetic material that has hasn’t run the Darwinian Gauntlet, creating a win/win scenario thereby. Thus, fishers, most of them male, get to use whatever angling strategy they want to catch and whack a fish, or two, or three, and then, in the best hunter/gatherer tradition, take them home for a feast. What could be wrong with that?

As it turns out, lots.

If you want to understand why, you need to consider whooping cranes. That’s right, whooping cranes.

Less than a hundred years ago, there were fewer than 16 whooping cranes. That’s it. That’s all. Of those cranes, four birds were breeding females. Whooping cranes had been heavily hunted. Their habitat had been savaged. Those betting on their extinction had gone all in.

Some scientists thought a glimmer of hope was enough. They moved some earth, and a little heaven, to obtain funding and stretched their imaginations to the breaking point in order to come up with a program promising a faint hope of survival.

Crane eggs were laid in captivity. When the whooper chicks hatched, the scientists contrived that the chicks would see an adult crane as soon as the youngsters had shed their shell. Imprinting is vital to all youngsters. When the adult crane, responding to its genetic programming, called to them, the chicks, predictably, responded by rushing toward what they perceived was their mother. Sadly, their union had to be thwarted by a plexiglass barrier. This was essential to prevent the chicks from inheriting traits passed on to them by domesticated hens. Doing so would cripple the chicks’ ability to migrate.

Barred from their assumed mothers, the disoriented chicks then looked around their impoundments and saw stuffed Mute Swans with whooping crane heads attached and their wings set so that the chicks could nestle underneath. When the chicks found this comfort zone, technicians appeared, dressed like huge cranes with crane puppets attached to their hands.

The faux cranes then taught the crane chicks the basics of survival using puppet theatre. When the wee cranes mastered these skills, the scientists conditioned them to follow a small aircraft. When they were fully fledged, the scientists flew across the continent to Florida in an ultra light aircraft. The cranes followed. Once they have followed the first time, they never need to be shown again.

As a result of the committed scientists’ exertions, and a cost of $100,000 per chick, and millions for the entire program, there are now 500 whooping cranes in the wild. A success and a testimony to human ingenuity, except for one thing.

It’s a big thing, too.

The cranes do everything that wild cranes should do, except they abandon their eggs before they hatch. Obviously, this is a flaw, a fundamental flaw. The cranes are not yet self sustaining. They are dependent upon man. Was this aberration a result of black fly infestations on the nesting sites? Scientists reduced that problem. The cranes’ self destructive behaviour didn’t change. Were the birds under nourished due to habitat alterations? After much deliberation, the scientists thought no. The problem, it appears, was a result of the magnificent birds’ zany, puppet-filled upbringing. But, what part?

Now, keeping the plight of the great cranes uppermost in your mind, think of fish hatcheries, places where we raise salmon before they have endured the rigour of spawning, after which we raise them in troughs absent the demands survival in a wild habitat imposes. Like cranes they have a twisted artificial childhood.

Now, after squandering millions on artificially rearing salmon over decades, scientists are discovering that the cost of enhancement continues to rise as the health of both artificially reared and wild salmon continues to decline. Highly touted salmon enhancement programs predicted to fix our fishy problems have turned out to be salmon replacement programs, where inferior hatchery fish are replacing genetically superior wild fish. It’s time to consider the cranes, what drove them to the brink, and to move away from hatcheries before we are dependent upon them to stave off the extinction of salmon.