Wild vs. Hatchery Steelhead

Oregon and Washington face their future

The state fish and game departments for Washington and Oregon both face a major dilemma: how to adequately protect what remains of their wild steelhead, while also continuing to produce hatchery steelhead for the many anglers who like to bring one home for dinner.

Achieving both of these goals has never been easy, but it’s become even more difficult lately, with a growing mountain of evidence now showing that, in the vast majority of cases, hatchery steelhead—once thought to help or enhance wild steelhead numbers—do precisely the opposite.

The result has been an increasingly bitter battle playing out between the two user groups, with wild fish advocates on one side, hatchery advocates on the other, and state fisheries personnel often stuck in the middle.

Predictably, much of the mud-slinging takes place on-line, with message boards on websites like ifish.net, washingtonflyfishing , and speypages, blossoming with threads on the pros and cons of hatcheries. But on a few occasions this past winter, believers on both sides were able to attend public meetings and share thoughts among friendly allies and not-so-friendly foes.

At issue are a couple of pending decisions regarding state management plans that could greatly affect the future of wild fish. In Washington, the meetings were held to discuss the establishment of three new “wild steelhead gene banks” on lower Columbia tribs—the North Fork Toutle/Green River, East Fork Lewis, and the Wind. The gene banks would end the release of hatchery fish in these systems, and are part of Washington’s larger Statewide Steelhead Management Plan, establisthed in 2004.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, the Department of Fish and Wildlife held a series of six public outreach meetings in January to discuss the proposed “Coastal Multi-Species Conservation and Management Plan,” which is part of its larger Native Fish Conservation Policy, adopted in 2002.

I attended both of the wild gene-bank meetings in Washington, the first on Dec. 5, in Vancouver, and the second on January 9, in Centralia. The Vancouver meeting was relatively low-key, with wild fish advocates far outnumbering the lone attendee who spoke in defense of hatcheries. Centralia was a different story. Word had spread quickly among pro-hatchery folk, with so many of them showing up that the meeting had to be moved from a Centralia College classroom into a sloping lecture hall, creating an atmosphere akin to Roman Theater. And in a way, that’s exactly what it was.

In the classic Quentin Tarantino film, Pulp Fiction, there’s a scene where Uma Thurman’s character interviews John Travolta’s character with a home video camera, just before the two go out to dinner. She asks him a series of questions, and one of them is, “In conversation, do you listen, or do you just wait to talk?” Travolta pauses for a moment, and then says, “I have to admit that I wait to talk, but I’m trying hard to listen.”

The problem with public comment sessions like those that took place in Oregon and Washington, is that everyone is just waiting to talk. “They use us all to perform for them, with the conclusion that the public is of mixed opinion, and that therefore the agency has to remain the decision-maker out of public chaos,” says noted Washington-based conservationist Bill McMillan, of the meetings. “The circus arena of public discourse, by trying to outshout, outreason, or outnumber each other, is the least likely way to effect change, especially when we know that the overall angler population remains wedded to both hatcheries and harvest.”

This desire to outnumber and outshout, of course, becomes all the more elevated when the topic turns to steelhead. The level of Northwest steelhead obsession seemed to surprise even long-time WDFW veteran Cindy Le Fleur, who, as fish manager for the state’s southwest region, was charged with running both of the Washington gatherings. “I’ve been amazed at how passionate people are when it comes to steelhead,” Le Fleur says. “The public has very strong feelings about this fish. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Unfortunately, strong feelings don’t always translate to strong understanding, particularly with an issue as convoluted as fisheries management. While plenty of fair points were raised by the pro-hatchery crowd, there were also some stunning examples of just how shallow the perception pool was among some of those advocating for harvest.

About midway through the evening in Centralia, a man near the back of the room was called on to speak. In trying to point out why the North Fork Toutle should not be included as a proposed gene bank, the man said: “In 1980, the mountain blew [Mount St. Helens], wiped out all three of those rivers [Toutle, Green, and Cowlitz], covered up every bit of that spawning ground, and killed off all natural fish. What’s been put back in that river has been hatchery fish, whether they’ve been fin-clipped or not. So where, all of a sudden, is this ‘wild, native’ run? It’s bullshit.”

Many wild fish advocates from Portland and Seattle seemed anxious to address this question, but a heartfelt, emotional response was provided by someone else—a man who lived near the river, and said he’d been fishing the South Toutle since he was a boy. “The eruption of Mount St. Helens did devastate those three rivers,” he began. “But the biologists and scientists should have known that the surviving generation was in the sea. In 1983 the Corps of Engineers built a dam on the South Fork of the Toutle and I put a fish ladder over it because 800 wild steelhead were beating their heads against it. I built a ladder across that dam and saved that wild run of fish. I care about those steelhead. I love those steelhead.”

Down in the Beaver State, fondness for steelhead is just as intense. The Coastal Multi-Species Conservation and Management Plan covers six species—spring and fall Chinook, chum salmon, summer and winter steelhead, and coastal cutthroat—along 265 miles of the Oregon coast. But the management proposal that has wild fish advocates upset is a suggested addition of three wild steelhead-harvest areas—the Salmon River, Big Elk Creek (a trib of the Yaquina River), and the East Fork Coquille.

“My question is, ‘Why?’” says Alan Moore, northwest director of habitat programs for Trout Unlimited. “In all the conversations I’ve been a party to related to this plan, both inside the process and out—and that’s been plenty—I have yet to hear a single public constituent support the wild steelhead-kill proposal, including people who like to harvest a lot of fish.”

Moore was one of a dozen people who served on the North Coast stakeholder group, one of four such groups formed by ODFW to provide input and feedback on the plans. (The Washington gene bank process used similar stakeholder groups). “The various parties and interests in this thing have had a tough time finding much we can all agree on,” Moore says, “but lack of support for wild steelhead-kill has been one of them.”

Part of the problem is how ODFW looks at these matters. The agency, like most state agencies, is funded by fees, not by the general fund, so they are reluctant to make stewardship decisions that will cost them license fees.

“When I look at this plan, I see a confused state agency,” author and fishing guide John Larison wrote to me in an email. “The details suggest that ODFW believes its primary role is to represent anglers, rather than ‘protect and enhance’ Oregon’s fish and rivers, as reads their mission. The new coastal plan underscores this predicament—past management decisions have shaped an angling population that sees more value in hatchery fish than wild ones. Now the science shows hatchery fish must go, and ODFW is faced with meeting harvest demands of the public it helped create.”

Larison also volunteers for the Native Fish Society (NFS), a 19-year-old, Portland-based conservation group that has taken the brunt of contempt from the pro-hatchery crowd, mostly because of its ongoing lawsuit over hatchery operations on Oregon’s Sandy River. These disparaging attacks on NFS have been unfair fallout from the latest round of the debate.

It’s pretty easy for people on either side of this issue to cherry-pick statistics and anecdotes that defend their position. NFS has been guilty of it, as have plenty of hatchery proponents. One needs only to view a couple recent films—Hatchery and Wild, which is mostly pro-hatchery; and Shane Anderson’s Wild Reverence, which is mostly pro-wild—to see how contrasting the story can be told. So I won’t recite all the available data that suggests why, in most cases, adding hatchery fish to wild-steelhead rivers makes things worse, not better. Because there’ll always be somebody on the other side explaining away each point. But allow me tell you what I do know.

I spent a weekend in early November at a Native Fish Society gathering on the Deschutes, and I met nobody fitting the “radical, activist, environmental group” description given by the Three Rivers Sportsman’s Alliance (TRSA)—a new, Portland-based Political Action Committee whose whole basis for existence seems to be, “We’re the guys who hate those other guys.”

On Jan. 24, I saw TRSA’s executive director, Greg Osburn, appear as a guest on Outdoor GPS, a live, Portland-area call-in fishing show. He described “an underhanded attack occurring on the Sandy River, from the Native Fish Society and the Eugene Flyfishers.” When host Owin Hays asked Osburn, “What are you actually doing, to be involved right now?” Osburn’s response was, “We’ve been building our base, building our sponsors, and building a war chest.”

A quick visit to the TRSA website makes it pretty clear what that war chest is for (check the “politicians for us” tab), and it has little to do with fish. On TV, Osburn said, “I don’t really like to get too political.” And on the TRSA website, he writes, “We must become politically active.” No matter which side of the political spectrum you fall, nobody likes a hypocrite, and surely we can do better than using salmon and steelhead as pawns, just because this happens to be an election year.

Ultimately, the biggest harm of hatchery fish may prove to be that they divide anglers. Instead of coming together for habitat improvement and dam removals, a group like NFS—whose membership includes many fishing guides—gets called “a cancer.” We all have much yet to learn, but we shouldn’t disregard what we’ve already learned: that when it comes to wild fish, we must work together to give them every safeguard possible, doing all we can to protect the best of what’s left.


(Edit note: On March 10, WDFW sided in favor of wild fish, approving the three new Washington gene banks.)