Conservation Hatchery on the Klamath River?

We’re practicing social distancing at our house, so last weekend I got the garage organized and caught up on some reading.  A couple of weeks ago The Native Fish society sent out an email that neatly encapsulates both my respect and frustration with them.  I agree completely that we should be doing everything possible to support wild fish in our rivers and streams.  There is no scientific doubt that wild fish are superior to hatchery fish and that large scale planting of hatchery fish for harvest into waters that contain wild fish should be stopped.  This is not a purely black and white issue, however, as was stated in research that NFS themselves referred to.  Hatcheries can have a role to play outside of simply stocking ponds and lakes for put and take fishing.

In their February 27th email, NFS provided a link to their blog that explained their opposition to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s plan to continue operations at two hatcheries on the Klamath River for 8 years following the scheduled removal of 4 dams.  In their post, NFS makes a carbon footprint argument against hatcheries, which I thought was interesting, to go along with the longstanding arguments about the genetic superiority of wild fish and dangers of releasing hatchery fish into waters that contain wild fish.

I have been writing about Klamath dam removal and anadromous fish reintroduction plans if you want to dig in more.  I am in agreement with NFS that continued operation of Iron Gate and revival of Fall River Hatchery is primarily a political decision, not one supported by science.  (NFS made no mention of the Trinity River hatchery which produces spring chinook that move up the Klamath River before heading up the Trinity.)

In the same email, however, NFS provided a link to the abstract for “A review of hatchery reform science in Washington State” published by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife on January 23rd.  Per WDFW, the science clearly shows that large scale hatchery operations are generally detrimental to wild fish for the reasons we all know: breeding between wild and genetically inferior hatchery fish, increased angling pressure on wild stocks when hatchery fish are present, competition for resources, etc.

That being said, the WDFW report also contains examples of hatcheries being beneficial.  Most compelling in my mind is the concept of small scale conservation hatcheries.  “Despite risks of inbreeding and loss of alleles in small populations, there are several examples in which conservation hatcheries have maintained or even increased within population genetic diversity through thoughtful management.”

The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife plans to implement a conservation hatchery at the Klamath Hatchery on Crooked Creek above Klamath Lake.  ODFW has no plans to release hatchery fish into the Klamath River other than spring chinook.  These fish have not existed very high up the Klamath River for over 100 years.  There might be some true wild fish remaining in the Trinity and Salmon River sub-basins.  Using them as broodstock would seem to quality as a conservation hatchery to me.  Of course, this requires using wild fish, it’s hard to see how using hatchery fish as broodstock would be an example of a conservation hatchery.

If we are truly going to let science guide our fisheries management decisions we should be advocating for a conservation hatchery as part of the reintroduction plan.  Perhaps NFS is doing this, but I couldn’t find it on their web site and have never heard them deviate from their core position that no anadromous “factory fish” should be released into rivers.

(NFS also needs to add the 5th “H”, heating, to their “H” list [hatcheries, harvest, hydro, and habitat].  In my opinion, a heating ocean is the single biggest issue today for anadromous fish.  Heating is why populations have so dramatically declined in just the past few years.)