Link to Article Originally Published March 9th, 2021:
In a perfect world Dr. Suzuki’s “The easy way can lead to disaster” article, which focuses on everything that is wrong with hatcheries, would make sense because the obvious question would then be: Why do we need them?
Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world and most likely will continue to live in an imperfect world for a long time to come. It is human nature to make mistakes, to choose winners and losers and to make trade-offs. In the case of salmon this has been the case as urbanization overwhelmed habitat, a century of overfishing reduced escapements and land based commercial activities degraded the capacity of natural systems to replenish fish stocks. In spite of sincere attempts, particularly over the last four decades, to protect critical salmon habitats from every man made impact, and to craft regulations to fish responsibly in order sustain salmon stocks and fisheries, we still have not succeeded which is why we find ourselves in a perpetual state of crisis.
No one disagrees with Suzuki’s vision of plentiful salmon supporting healthy communities and vibrant fisheries. Here’s the problem. Unless he can assure us that no more poorly designed roads will be built or culverts installed, no accidental spills will find their way into fish bearing streams, no more parking lots or subdivisions will be constructed, not another tree will be removed from riparian zones, no more important shorelines will be altered, no more water extraction for agriculture will be allowed, no additional hydro production will occur, population increases will stop and demands for more living space will cease- BC’s salmon will continue to decline. This is because almost every human activity from flushing a toilet to driving to the mall has impacts, and they are cumulative no matter how much mitigation is built in. We can slow it, but we cannot stop it. That does not mean we have to lose salmon because of it.
That is reality right now even before considering pressures of a warming climate, or the impact of disasters like the Fraser River Big Bar slide and the more recent Southgate landslide near the head of Bute Inlet, which on their own have the potential to wipe out entire runs of salmon.
So, it is baffling that, after over 150 years of use, hatcheries are now the boogie men for what is wrong with salmon. There is no question that hatcheries were originally built for the wrong reasons. They were seen as a means of making more fish to support bigger more prosperous fisheries, and as a mitigation tool so salmon habitats could be compromised for other purposes. The Columbia River is a good case study. Hatcheries were built into the planning process as mitigation so that the Columbia could meet hydro, agricultural and transportation needs and still have salmon. Of course, this creates another problem if you oppose hatcheries. What do you do with the Columbia? Close all the hatcheries? Remove all the dams? Restore it to a natural state? Perhaps some of it is possible on a small scale. But even the incremental loss of hatchery production, without an equivalent increase in natural production, will have dire consequences for salmon runs, dependent fisheries and marine mammals like fish eating whales. So, in cases like the Columbia, we are trapped in a no win situation, with extraordinary costs attached should governments embark on dam removals, legally ordered compensations and massive restoration activities. Is it a cost the public is prepared to bear? We have similar but smaller scale examples in BC.
Should we daylight all the paved-over small streams in the lower mainland or rip out all the dykes that protect the Fraser Delta’s farmland and communities? In some areas it’s possible to regain lost ground, but on a massive scale probably not. Good for salmon, but once again enormously expensive for obvious reasons. So, what are the options?
Since the 1980’s hatchery technologies have made significant advances. The goal for modern hatcheries, large and small, is to produce salmon by mimicking nature to the greatest degree possible. These technologies include but are not limited to staggered fry release timing, releasing fry in the evening so they can find shelter quickly under the cover of night, studying the survival of fry released at different weights and lengths, returning fry to their rivers of origin, selectively choosing the brood stock over the breadth of the run, matching breeding pairs, even educating fry at “predator avoidance school” where natural cover is placed in the rearing pens and fake predators are randomly introduced.
However, the message that the public receives about hatcheries is almost exclusively negative and this article is no exception. This is unfortunate, extremely short-sighted and wrong. Without concerted efforts to expand hatchery technology, for a wide range of endeavors, there is no way that salmon will be able to withstand the relentless pressure from population demands and now from climate change. Hatcheries are the insurance policies against disaster, and often the principal source of salmon production for regions that have been irreparably damaged by past activities.
Modern hatcheries, including large facilities, have an important role to play. If there are problems with specific programs or production protocols they need to be identified and resolved but not eliminated. The long term goal must include a move to strategic hatchery production that adapts to changing conditions on the ground. Hatcheries already compliment in-stream restoration all over the Province and have done so since the creation of the Salmonid Enhancement Program. There are scores if not hundreds of streams in BC that have salmon today not in spite of hatcheries but because of them; and because of the countless hours than volunteers contribute to keeping these facilities running so salmon still return to rivers.
If you really want to understand what goes on at a hatchery take the time to visit one. Visitors are welcome at many sites and some facilities provide tours. At the same time hatchery opponents might stop for a reality check to evaluate where salmon will be without the promise of modern hatchery technology, as we move forward into very uncertain times. Instead of spending time criticizing hatcheries their energy would be better spent on improving their performance and cooperatively developing even better technologies. Hatcheries are a vital tool in salmon recovery, not a target for removal.
See the background information here: https://publicfisheryalliance.ca/open-letter-background/