Artifishal: Not a Complete Picture

Last night I attended the Bend premier of Artifishal, “a film about people, rivers, and the fight for the future of wild fish and the environment that supports them. It explores wild salmon’s slide toward extinction, threats posed by fish hatcheries and fish farms, and our continued loss of faith in nature”.  Produced by Patagonia and heavily promoted in the Pacific NW by the Native Fish Society, I found the film to be visually and emotionally powerful but lacking in nuance.  Clearly, hatcheries are a problem for wild fish, but they are only part of a complex web of issues.

In the scientific community there is absolutely no doubt that hatchery fish are inferior to wild, native fish.  Fish biologists, even hatchery managers, all know this.  Further, the evidence is clear that interbreeding between wild and hatchery stocks significantly degrades the genetic makeup of the resulting fish.  Even a first generation hatchery fish (bred from wild parents) is less likely to survive in the wild, while competing with wild fish for food and habitat.  Natural selection is a powerful evolutionary force and it can be seen in a single generation of fish.

Further, if you have not spent any time in a hatchery, then the images in the movie could be powerful.  It’s like any other animal factory: fish, cows, pigs, chickens, etc.  We are not kind to animals.

Without a doubt, hatcheries have contributed to the decline of anadromous fish (salmon and steelhead), a decline that could lead to more extinctions in short order.  That being said, while hatchery stocks interbreeding with wild stocks is a serious problem, it’s not the only problem.  In my opinion, Artifishal did not provide an adequate big picture overview.

The film made mention of “the 4 H’s” that are impacting anadromous fish, hydro (dams), habitat, hatcheries, and harvest, while completely omitting heating, what I believe is the “5th H”.  All of these are important but not all were well discussed.

  • Heating: for the past few years, parts of the Pacific have been so warm that the food web has collapsed.  Many anadromous salmonids (primarily salmon and steelhead) make it to the ocean only to starve to death.
  • Hydro: even if they have a fish ladder, dams and the reservoirs behind them block access to spawning grounds, and turbines chop up young fish attempting to make it out to the sea.
  • Habitat: we have polluted, farmed, industrialized, logged, and otherwise developed the watersheds that created the ecosystems required for healthy fish.
  • Harvest: the global population has more than doubled in my lifetime, it is still growing, and we are over fishing way past sustainability.  We sport anglers are also making an impact.  Even with catch and release best practices mortalities do occur and released fish are less likely to successfully spawn.

Without fully addressing the big picture, eliminating hatchery releases will be of limited benefit.  At the top of the list is CO2 reduction.  Every year is the hottest on record, a trend that has no end in sight.  If the rivers and oceans do not cool, many anadromous fish in lower latitudes will soon go extinct.  Dams need to be removed to allow wild fish access to historical spawning grounds.  This is happening at a small scale, but has to happen at a huge scale and very quickly to have an impact.  Think of what that means: economic disruption in many communities and regions, loss of a reliable “green” energy source, loss of water for agriculture, etc.  Human activities in watersheds have to be massively curtailed to restore habitat.  Desirable food sources for humans must be identified and made available to compensate for lower harvest of wild fish.

It’s an overwhelming complex problem.  That complexity does not mean it should be ignored, but primarily focusing on a single part of the problem is not the answer.  It is also the case that hatcheries play a positive role.  Many waters in Central Oregon do not have native fish.  Lakes like East, Paulina, Lava, Hosmer, Elk, etc., did not have fish until they were planted by settlers.  There is no evidence that the Fall River had trout before it was planted.  These waters provide excellent recreational fishing for many while having no impact on native stocks, as there never were any.  While I am a diehard wild fish bigot, most anglers are not, and they have a right to catch a hatchery fish.  After all, they paid for that fish with their license dollars.

Which leads to the claim in the movie that the total cost of a single adult hatchery salmon caught is $68K, an amount paid for by taxpayers.  I have never heard this figure before and would love to get the data behind it.  I have heard that an adult salmon from a Washington hatchery costs around $1K, but even that source came with the caveat that it needed to be further verified.  On the other hand, if you take the number of adult anadromous fish that have returned to the upper Deschutes Basin and divide that into the $200M+ (and growing) cost spent so far on reintroduction, you will find that these are very expensive fish.

It is important to understand that in Oregon at least, these costs are not borne by taxpayers as stated in the movie.  Perhaps they are in Washington and California, I don’t know.  In Oregon, hatcheries are supported by fishing license fees and various mitigation funds.  The upper Deschutes basin reintroduction program is being funded by PGE ratepayers.

I’ll end with some comments on the role of hatcheries in the ongoing anadromous reintroduction efforts in the upper Deschutes basin.  Chinook salmon and steelhead are threatened in the lower Deschutes basin.  Their populations are low and they have been seriously declining over the past few years.  It is bad enough that I have called on recreational anglers to stop fishing for steelhead on the Deschutes altogether, a very painful position for me to take as a steelhead junkie.  Given the limited number of wild, native fish, managers made the call to use hatchery fish to plant in upper Basin rivers: Crooked, Metolius, middle Deschutes.

This remains a controversial decision and one that everyone knew had a low chance of success.  But, what was the alternative?  Take some of the few wild, native fish from the lower river and move them to the upper basin?  That would further endanger lower river stocks and could not be done at a large enough scale to have a high probability of success.  It is also important to understand that these hatchery fish are highly domesticated.  They have been inbreed for decades and now have few wild characteristics.  They all come back to the hatchery and do not attempt to breed in the wild.  They do compete with wild fish for resources in the ocean, but that is supposed to be a large resource.

In any event, the hatchery program is being modified to release fewer, larger fish.  There are also plans to use wild fish as broodstock if enough of them return.  That’s a big “if” however as not enough have returned the past two years to use any.

It’s a very complex problem, one that needs nuance to be understood.  Nuance that I thought was lacking in the movie.