Billions spent on hatcheries, habitat fails to help native Columbia River salmon, study finds

A male coho salmon. (Bureau of Land Management)

Decades of data show that despite billions in taxpayer investment, salmon and steelhead hatchery programs and restoration projects in the Columbia River Basin have failed to support or boost native fish populations and in fact are contributing to their decline.

Oregon State University economics professor William Jaeger and Mark Scheuerell, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Washington, looked at 50 years of native and hatchery salmon and steelhead return data from the Bonneville Dam near Cascade Locks. The Bonneville Dam is the last of 14 dams on the Columbia River before it empties into the Pacific Ocean, and it is where many salmon and steelhead — both those born in hatcheries and in the wild — return to deposit their eggs after one to seven years in the ocean. The two also reviewed decades of spending on habitat restoration and hatcheries programs in the river basin, meant to save the species from extinction.

Jaeger and Scheuerell found that while the number of salmon and steelhead born in hatcheries that return as adults has grown slightly, wild populations of salmon and steelhead have not, and in some cases they’re being hurt by the hatchery fish. The growth in hatchery fish populations has in some cases resulted in the spread of disease and increasing competition for food with native fish, Jaeger noted. Scientists have even found that some hatchery fish prey on wild fish.

The study was published July 28 in the journal PLOS One.

“The actual impact of all of these efforts has always been poorly understood,” Jaeger said in a news release.

There are about 200 salmon hatchery programs in the Columbia River Basin, and 80% of all salmon and steelhead that return to the Columbia River as adults started their lives in hatcheries, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries division.

The cost to taxpayers to maintain these hatcheries during the last 40 years has been about $9 billion when adjusted for inflation, according to Jaeger. This does not include any of the money spent by local governments or nonprofits and nongovernment agencies.

“We found no evidence in the data that the restoration spending is associated with a net increase in wild fish abundance,” Jaeger said.

David Moskowitz, executive director of the nonprofit Conservation Angler which works to protect wild salmon and steelhead, said $9 billion dollars in the last four decades is probably a low figure.

“That doesn’t even take into account the costs of all the management that goes on,” he said.

‘Failed promise’

Steelhead, chinook, coho and sockeye numbers have been declining in the Columbia River Basin for more than 150 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Overfishing and damming of the river for hydropower have played the largest role. Other factors hurting the fish include farming pollution and the loss of water to irrigation, climate change, as well as habitat loss due to logging and mining.

The growth of hatcheries during the last century was a response to the growth of dams. State and federal governments made a promise to Columbia Basin tribes and to the public that any salmon or steelhead lost to dams would be replaced.

“The hatchery promise was made without any idea if it would work. It was a failed promise,” Moskowitz said.

Prior to damming, an estimated 16 million salmon and steelhead returned to the Columbia River in the area above what is now Bonneville Dam each year. But by the 1970s, less than 1 million were returning.

By 1991, 12 runs of Columbia River salmon and steelhead were listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, leading to a boom in restoration and hatchery spending, the researchers found.

An investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica last year found that several federally-subsidized hatcheries on the Columbia River — responsible for 80% of all the salmon in the Columbia River — spent between $250 to $650 for every hatchery salmon that returned.

Efforts to increase the salmon and steelhead population in the Columbia to 5 million by 2025 are not on target, Jaeger found. Annual adult returns at the dam averaged about 1.5 million in the previous decade, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We’ve lost so much,” Moskowitz said. “It is a death by a thousand cuts, but we’re just whacking ourselves in the back of the head, too, by spending so much on hatchery fish.”

State officials will look at that. The recently passed Senate Bill 5509, which Gov. Tina Kotek signed on Monday, includes $1 million for a third-party assessment of hatchery programs in the state, including analysis of their costs versus benefits.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

— By Alex Baumhardt, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

  1. I’m in no way an expert on this subject, but I went to the Conservation Angler website and read their documents. While some claims are likely true, many of them are falsely represented – genetic differences (where’s the genetic profiles to support this?), healthier (don’t see that in any of the salmon I’ve eaten), hatchery fish don’t go to the ocean and return up the rivers (ah – yes the majority do – it’s the net pen specific fish that don’t. And if they didn’t, how do those select few cause all that disease amongst the so called wild). Hatchery production was significantly reduced, as well as allowable catch rates, through the 80’s and early 90’s and yet the salmon count continued its decline. I would also question if there is any such thing as a naturally wild salmon any longer? One of the biggest issues in all of this is that no source of data is without an agenda – everything I get from the sportsman side is biased, and everything from the conservation side is biased. We need an independent source that isn’t influenced by their special interests or $$$$

  2. Hi Jeffrey, you’re not wrong that it does seem that everyone in this arena has a bias. And that there are enormous numbers of mitigating factors that play into it all. But the simple fact is this:

    “Prior to damming, an estimated 16 million salmon and steelhead returned to the Columbia River in the area above what is now Bonneville Dam each year. But by the 1970s, less than 1 million were returning.”

    So it’s probably the sea lions…

    1. LoL! But of course it the pinepeds!
      I’d hate to see them shut down hatcheries and then end up with a completely depleated food chain for the Orca’s. I’m slightly in favor of damn removal at this point, but there are huge impacts of that action that can not be ignored. I’m biased in favor or me being able to fish, but I am also fairly alone in that world in that I would give up a couple seasons if I knew it would ensure a positive impact on the future of the salmon runs.

  3. I’ve pretty much aged out of the local sport salmon fishing scene now, but have observed the whole salmon mess from the Tribal Salmon wars of the 60’s and 70’s, and dodging gill nets between Everett and Possession Point, to the current practice of releasing all wild Chinook Salmon and most wild Coho Salmon based on the presence of an adipose fin. The hatchery fish have the adipose fin removed from the juvenile fish before release. A big wild fish swimming off with a blood trail from bad handling hook removal or holding up for a picture, is a dead fish most of the time.

    The whole thing has been pretty much mismanaged by the state from the get-go, with band-aid fixes of hatchery based answers while neglecting or procrastinating on the crucial environmental factors. Some of the Tribal actions haven’t been too beneficial to the resource either; but I think it’s great that they have asserted and regained their tribal rights based on treaties they signed in good faith decades ago.

  4. Credit professors William Jaeger and Mark Scheuerell for publishing the truth about hatchery failure. I am no expert but, perhaps a ten year ban on all tribal and sports fishing on the Columbia might be a start. Thinning the sea lion population would also help. Dam removel is a non-starter unless you want go without your electric furnace, AC, electric appliances like computers and replace your electric car with the Flintstone model. Not top mention soaring farm produce costs when Eastern Washington farmers cannot irrigate. Perhaps if nuclear fusion reactors get perfected there could be some alternatives to cheap hydroelectric power we now enjoy.

  5. Actually it’s only the upper river Columbia and Snake river dams they are talking about removing and they don’t produce all that much hydro-electric but that is definitely a factor. Those dams are more for transport and making the Twin Cities a Seaport for grain shipment. I’ve been told they don’t support that much irrigation and some water could still be drawn out for irrigation purposes, but I’m not certain on that front. Grain could be shipped via truck and rail to Portland of course. Bottom line is dams and salmon don’t mix well. The marine mammals are a factor and locally the over population of seals and sea lions wiped out the Lake Washington Steelhead run years ago. Saving salmon everywhere is a hugely complex issue but over fishing, dam construction, imbalance in marine mammal populations, and abuse of the lesser water sheds are the main culprits.

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