Global warming and fish hatcheries

Fish hatcheries are an intractable source of controversy in the angling community.  Without them, most of the fishing that Oregonians enjoy would disappear since sportfish did not exist in most of our lakes prior to stocking.  On the other hand, it is a scientific fact that hatchery fish released into rivers are an important contributor to the decline of wild fish.  Speaking for myself as a wild, native fish bigot, I think there is an important role for hatcheries, but I wish that hatchery fish were not released into rivers where they can interact with wild, native fish.  As a recent report commissioned by the Oregon Depart of Fish & Wildlife reveals, that may have to occur in some places in the coming years, but it is not necessarily good news for wild fish.

ODFW is putting significant resources into studying global warming’s impact on fish and wildlife management including hatchery operations.  This is a long term concern but also an immediate one as some hatcheries have been partially or mostly burned in recent wildfires.  Rock Creek hatchery near Glide on the North Umpqua River was mostly destroyed and a decision has yet to be made about rebuilding.  Part of the decision framework includes a hatchery “Climate Change Risk Assessment”.  The ODFW Restoration & Enhancement Board, of which I am a member, partially paid for this assessment and we were recently provided the results.

In short, even hatcheries that have not been faced with fire damage “face a variety of challenges, including rising water and air temperatures, reduced summer streamflows, changes in precipitation across the year, water rights struggles, and power supply reliability”.  It will not be enough to rebuild damaged hatcheries as they were or operate them using past practices.  Expensive to purchase and operate water recirculation and filtration systems along with water chillers will have to be installed in many hatcheries.  The cost of doing this is beyond ODFW’s budget and the ongoing power requirements will likely not fit within ODFW’s targets for carbon emissions.

Hatchery critics may take this report as good news, but that would be shortsighted.  Clearly, lack of cold, clean, instream water possesses an existential threat to natural fish reproduction and survival.  Only time will tell how ODFW and the rest of us will prioritize spending but global warming’s impact on fish and wildlife is accelerating and we are behind the curve.  Will we invest our limited resources in hatcheries only to release fish into unsuitable habitat?  Will we restore habitats that can support fish?  Can we do either or both at scale?  These are big problems, and we are not responding in a commensurate manner.