Our columnist Rob Brown takes on the BC Wildlife Federation's proposal for steelhead hatcheries

Here we go again. Just when I thought the debate over whether or not to raise steelhead in hatcheries was dead and gone, the voice of unreason is heard once more.

The provincial government’s Steelhead Stream Classification Policy (SSCP) is up for review. The opportunity for the public to offer up its two cents expires on the 31st of this month. Hearing of this golden opportunity, Mike Langegger, the BC Wildlife Federation (BCWF) president of that organization’s Region 6, is exhorting his presidential cohort to pump up their PCs and provide comments to those bureaucrats charged with the well being of steelhead.

Among other things, Langegger pushes the “positive results” of hatchery augmentation, citing the Kitimat hatchery as a shining example. Before I challenge the notion of artificial enhancement for steelhead, a little context is required to help understand from whence Langegger and his likeminded BCWF cronies are coming.

As Jim Culp likes to remind me, back in the days when the terms environmentalist and ecology weren’t in anyone’s lexicon and few understood the importance of wildlife habitat – a time when proposed open pit mining and hydro dams were all the rage – the BCWF did yeoman’s work in defence of rivers, forests and the creatures therein. For the most part, the organization lost the battle over dams, but there is no question there would have been far more dams than there are had it not been for the BCWF.

The term wildlife federation is actually a misnomer. The organization is essentially a federation of rod and gun clubs. Given this structure, it’s not surprising that they fight for the right to continue killing everything from grizzly bears to trout, and stoutly resist any effort to curtail that killing through reduced bag limits. This includes catch and release regulations, which, for the most part, they regard as a closure since no killing is involved. To this end, Wilddeath Federation is a more accurate appellation.

As Langegger writes, “Harvesting from our natural environment for food is an important generations old value of resident anglers.”

Like many of his fellows, Langegger uses the term “harvesting” euphemistically. Harvesting is an agrarian term that means reaping what one has sown. Since wildlife hasn’t been planted, it can’t be harvested.

You should now be able to appreciate why Langegger is promoting hatcheries: hatcheries mean more fish. Fisheries managers encourage the kill of hatchery fish, which means more fish to kill. Things are not that simple, however. Fisheries scientist, Bruce Ward, who has done a lot of work on the effects of hatchery production on steelhead writes, “Little evidence is available to support the contention that hatchery steelhead can serve as a tool to re-build the wild population directly through the spawning of hatchery returns in wild rivers. Indeed, the evidence suggests the opposite may be true.”

The Independent Scientific Review Panel of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council for the Columbia River looked at  whether supplementing – using artificially-reared fish to enhance numbers of juveniles and adults to increase the number of naturally-spawning adults in a target population wild stocks – was a viable strategy. It concluded that the practise entailed demographic, genetic (fitness), ecological, and disease risks and uncertainties.

Bill Bakke, a biologist with numerous prestigious awards for conservation, and the director of Native Fish Society, has battled against hatcheries in Washington and Oregon for the last 40 years, puts things directly. “Hatchery fish are toxic,” says Bill. Studies demonstrate time and again that hatchery fish produce 50 percent fewer eggs than wild fish when they spawn in the wild, and that behaviours that help fish thrive in hatcheries make them less successful in the wild. They are simply less genetically fit to survive than the wild steelhead, evolved over millennia to thrive in the specific stream where they were born. “Fish are not interchangeable. They can’t be manufactured like brown shoes.”

“Hatcheries are the goose that laid the golden egg for the government agencies,” says Bakke. Hatchery funding comprises the majority of the fish agencies’ budgets. All that for a product that not only is counterproductive, but wasteful. Columbia River summer steelhead, for example, cost $453 per fish to produce at Irrigon Hatchery. When we fished together five years ago, Bill was unequivocal. Hatchery fish, he said, are the greatest threat to the remaining wild stocks in the western US states.