Steelhead are locally adapted to their home streams as are salmon. They are place-based animals. Understanding this for both the fish and the habitat is the necessary focus of management. Protecting and continuing the ecological relationships of watersheds is needed to have productive, resilient and abundant wild salmonid populations.
Generally, the requirements of conservation secure the abundance of spawners to fully utilize the habitat and the habitat diversity to support the life history needs of each species, spanning from adult spawners, egg incubation through smolt in each stream. If these conditions are not functioning, the only result that can be expected is declining abundance and eventual extinction. Decline and extinction is the result of cutting animals off from their relationships to one another and to their habitats.
Our fish management institutions are focused not on productivity of steelhead but on their production. It is the same industrial model used to make and market brown shoes that delivers salmon and even some steelhead to the industrial food chain where they are marketed as a product. The consequences of this kind of management are loss and degradation of biological diversity, habitat function and decline as the fish and their habitats are exploited. The growing number of ESA listed wild steelhead stands as testimony for this conclusion. The 150-year declining trend in abundance of all species is another indicator that fish management institutions have it all wrong. As well intended as they might be, all the plans and policies implemented have failed to reverse this trend.
We are faced with the eventual extinction of wild steelhead, but it does not need to happen. Changing the direction of management and reversing the trend in wild steelhead decline is up to each of us, for we are the voice for conservation and protection. This means we go beyond recreation and embrace a commitment for the future of wild salmonids and rivers. “Wild is the future.” To be effective we must be knowledgeable, organized, and effective advocates.
Some of you reading this will say that hatcheries can sustain the fishery, but you would be wrong. Not only are hatcheries a component of the industrial model that has resulted in the present crisis, they have lulled us into thinking that fish come from hatcheries just as our children believe milk comes from Safeway. Hatcheries are sustained by economic and political agreements. When agreements break down the support for continued hatchery production weakens. It is already happening.
We already know that hatcheries are a deficit program, that is, they cost more to produce a fish for harvest than they provide in economic benefit. We know that hatcheries degrade the fitness and reproductive success of wild populations when hatchery fish spawn naturally with them. We know that harvesting hatchery fish kills too many wild fish, reducing wild spawner abundance. We know that wild fish are needed to reboot the hatchery to improve survival and cost effectiveness of hatchery fish. We know that hatcheries have been used to mitigate for degraded and lost habitat and that mitigation is has not worked. The simple 150-year-old industrial model of stock and kill has contributed substantially to the demise of the wild runs. Not only have we been remarkably successful in breaking the relationships between these animals to one another and their habitats that have been perfected over millions of years, we have embraced an institutional and political path that will only make it worse.
Hatcheries have pacified us into believing that steelhead and salmon and the fisheries are sustainable. We have been told that hatcheries are a replacement for rivers and for wild fish, and can even be used to recover wild runs. We know this is not true because evaluation has begun to challenge these established long-held and propagated beliefs. As long as we continue to believe in the hatchery solution the industrial model goes unchallenged and we have the pleasure of continuing to finance it. Hatcheries exist on public funding; we are funding a technology that substantially contributes to the ruin of healthy rivers and wild fish. But it does not need to happen. It is not ordained. We can build a different future for ourselves, for healthy productive rivers and wild steelhead and salmon and once again establish the relationships that sustain all of it. It all depends on taking a stand as many have, thankfully, already done.
What We Can Do
- Each of us lives in a watershed. Be a good neighbor and treat it with care and respect.
- Become a steward for your favorite water and get others involved.
- Organize and become effective advocates and join with others that have watershed health and wild fish protection as their primary mission.
- Inform yourself and enjoy the rivers where learning and ideas find fertile ground.
- Push back and offer resistance to those who would degrade both streams and their fish populations.
- Donate funds and time to outfits making a difference for watershed and wild fish protection.
Each watershed has a unique character and native wild fish that are adapted to it. That is the place to become engaged and make a stand, for they are local, sustainable and productive. It is up to each of us.