SELECTIVE FISHING CAN REBUILD WILD SALMON
Wright says “The common practice of deliberately overfishing naturally spawning salmon populations in order to harvest comingled hatchery fish continues to be alive and well in Washington and Oregon (albeit with some new disguises commonly called “hatchery reform”). It is true that at this date hatchery and naturally spawning salmon are still harvested together in unnecessary and harmful mixed-stock fisheries. But the goals of hatchery reform, apparently misunderstood by Wright, are largely the same as the changes he proposes, but with more precise guidelines.
Hatchery reform is a process created by Congress, guided by a group of largely independent scientists called the HSRG (Hatchery Scientific Review Group). It is ongoing and its recommendations are widely accepted in the Pacific Northwest. A primary conclusion is the numbers of hatchery salmon spawning together with natural stocks should be strictly limited so hatchery fish do not compromise the genetics and thus the productivity and survival rates of natural, protected fish. This means that hatchery fish should be fully harvested, above hatchery broodstock needs, or not produced in the first place. Since hatchery fish are largely the only fish available for harvest, no production means no fisheries. Thus we assume the logical goal is to maintain harvest while simultaneously recovering ESA listed stocks.
Both Wright and the HSRG agree that what is needed is selective fishing that can harvest hatchery fish and release natural fish without harm. A requirement so fishermen can identify natural fish and release them is the hatchery fish need to have a visually identifiable mark. This has largely been accomplished by removing the adipose fin from all hatchery fish intended for harvest throughout Washington State and the Columbia River in anticipation of conversion to selective commercial gear, which has not happened. Recreational gear is capable of selective fishing, but cannot fully harvest most stocks. Gillnets are the primary legal commercial gear, but are not capable of selective fishing. There are a variety of commercial gears available that could fit the requirements, such as beach seines, modified purse seines, reef nets, traps, pound nets, and others, but they are largely illegal. Wright emphasizes halting use of “hatchery fish zones”, in order to avoid killing protected salmon. The HSRG uses different terminology, stop killing natural fish unnecessarily, but the result is the same.
There has been a great amount of political effort to maintain gillnet fishing. For example, in 1995 Initiative 640 in Washington State would have required selective commercial gear and accomplished everything Wright and the HSRG are proposing, but it was resoundly defeated. Why was it defeated? One issue was gillnetting would not qualify for the necessary selectivity. The typical TV ad showed a poor family with small children, with the false assertion that their livelihood would be taken away, and housewives would not be able to purchase salmon because gillnets would be banned. What did not come out was the fact that commercial catches of chinook and coho would greatly increase because the hatchery surplus fish and the excess hatchery fish on the spawning grounds would be caught, not wasted. Hatchery surplusses and escapees to natural spawning grounds number in the hundreds of thousands each year, greatly exceeding the catches.
Gillnetters, and presumably purse seiners, etc., seem to identify with the idea that they are gillnetters, not just commercial fishermen. From either a manager’s or a fisherman’s perspective, it should make little difference what gear is used, except the catch and escapement goals should be achieved, which does not happen now. Gillnets catch essentially everything, mixed species and sizes of fish, plus birds and marine mammals. Also, they are the basis for most ghost nets, lost nets that continue to fish unseen and cost millions of dollars to remove. Another point of resistence to change is the fear that the fishermen would have to invest heavily for new gear. This should not be a concern because the enormous costs of modifying the hydro system, irrigation, and other habitat issues is so large compared to the costs of new gear that this would be a best buy for the public relative to other costs of maintaining natural salmon.
Wright presents the hatchery fish management zone concept as being maintained by supressing information about acts that are either illegal or at least misleading. He is righteously concerned that he was forcing major investments in habitat that would never see needed spawners because of mismanaged harvest. He should be made aware that at this time the WDFW and the Puget Sound tribes have agreed to a Puget Sound Chinook harvest management plan that repeatedly asserts there is no reason to reduce harvest, hatchery zones or not, until spawning habitat is improved. This might seem to be simply a case of different conclusions from the same information, but it is not. There is no scientific basis for the State/Tribal position that there are sufficient natural spawners. Throughout the area of concern, hatchery salmon are a major, or the major, component of naturally spawning salmon. The HSRG asserts, based on published science, that hatchery origin spawners produce offspring that do not survive as well as progeny of natural origin salmon. They further state that even under current habitat conditions, productivity of natural fish can be doubled by eliminating hatchery spawners. At a minimum, hatchery-origin spawners replaced by natural-origin spawners would increase the probability of Recovery.
Wright sees harvest management that fails to provide adequate spawners as probably illegal. Looking at the same problem from a slightly different perspective, the authorized killing of substantial proportions of ESA listed fish, particularly when this is not even necessary if the gear is changed, seems clearly contrary to law.
Scientifically and economically, the change to selective fishing, sport and commercial, is required and obvious. What is preventing the change?
Pete Bergman Jan. 11, 2010