Friday, March 18, 2011

Do the Math - Why Steelhead Broodstock Programs Hurt Wild Fish

I've thought a lot about the steelhead broodstock programs over the years since it's inception and it, along with the harvest of wild cutthroat trout, are the main focus of my wrath against the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Being that I am not a fishery biologist I rely on the wisdom of others that are educated in fish biology, specifically anadromous salmonids like steelhead and I've asked both Bill Bakke and Spencer Miles to help me with this post.
Let's go with some simple mathematics. I'll use females as my examples since one wild male steelhead can "service" several females.
A typical wild steelhead female will produce about 3-5 thousand eggs so for this example I'll go with the bottom end number of 3,000. Out of these eggs let's conservatively estimate that out of these eggs 2 adults will mature to return as adults 2-3 years later. ODFW takes about 30-35 pair, each year, of wild steelhead. So if out of those 30-35 pairs of wild steelhead, that are used to make hatchery steelhead, were to produce, let's say 60 returning adults and then multiply that by the number of years these broodstock programs have been running and then multiply, if you can the lost progeny all the generations of wild eggs that were turned into hatchery steelhead I think you may be surprise at the cost to wild steelhead populations. The offspring of these wild steelhead are taken out of the equation and will not spawn naturally. Instead they are made into a hatchery product. The potential of each and every one of those wild into hatchery eggs is lost. How many wild steelhead would those "borrowed" eggs produced.
On the Nestucca and Wilson rivers this broodstock program has been going one for about 10 years. Do the math! I used conservative numbers and percentages to make my point but even at that the numbers really add up.
These two rivers have declining populations of wild winter steelhead. Redd counts from the last two years were alarmingly low yet ODFW still does their take of wild steelhead to populate their hatchery needs.
Who benefits most from this program?
Very simple! Professional bait guides do. They lobbied hard for this program and they all march lock step in advocating it. They claim the wild populations are healthy enough to sustain the removal of the wild spawning fish every year. I have my doubts about the numbers they come up with on their creel and spawning surveys.
Do I think they are deliberately inflating their creel counts of wild steelhead they've encountered? Well let me put it this way. They are the user group who benefits most by having this steelhead broodstock fishery.
They have guided trips with paying customers at a time of year that in the past they did not. Their customers are able to harvest the hatchery broodstock steelhead at a time of year when there should be only wild steelhead present and less angling pressure
There are other pitfalls of these programs besides just the numbers. I think all other arguments about the negative effect of steelhead broodstock programs aside the sheer numbers of wild fish removed, over a period of years, should be the most alarming.
One bait guide says these wild eggs are just being borrowed! Borrowed? How so? The potential or recruits of all those offsprings are multiplied and lost forever.
It's a dangerous game that ODFW is playing with the future of wild steelhead and the gamble is not worth it in the least.
This example I've used describes a stable situation where the steelhead parents are replacing themselves. It illustrates a conversion of a wild salmonid population into a production program to provide harvest benefits to a business. This conversion has a biological impact on the wild population through genetic and competition impacts that affect the reproductive success of the wild population at a cost to the public that supports the program through tax dollars, fees and investments in watershed protection. The cost to produce a fish that is harvested is hidden from the public by the state management agency. There have been some economic studies that have determined what those costs are. For example, a recent independent economic evaluation was completed under contract for NOAA Fisheries that pointed out that the Mitchell Act Hatchery program on the Columbia River (18 hatcheries) is a deficit spending program for all hatcheries. These hatcheries are supported with public tax dollars. In response NOAA Fisheries fired this economics team and looked for one that would give them the answer they wanted. For hatchery programs, regardless the type, there is no cost or biological impact accountability. These programs are sold by the management agencies (state, tribal and federal) as conservation actions, when in fact they are not only a drain on public funds, they are increasing the risk to wild fish populations. The recent study done by Chilcote (NOAA Fisheries), Goodson (ODFW) and Falcy (ODFW) point out that conventional hatchery production and native broodstock hatcheries for coho, chinook and steelhead all contribute to the decline of the wild populations that they affect, for the wild populations decline in proportion to the naturally spawning hatchery fish in those wild populations. The agencies have constructed a good business plan, for they get most of the benefit from the invested public funds, but it has eclipsed the conservation mission of the agencies and is placing the native fish that are their primary responsibility at greater risk of extinction. For example, the Sandy River wild steelhead have declined from an estimated 20,000 fish to 800 fish over time. Mitigation hatcheries funded by the public have not been successful in replacing the loss or stemming the decline. Even though the public has made a $100 million commitment to restore this river for wild salmon and steelhead, they are disturbed by the fact that wild run continues to decline, it is threatened with extinction, and the habitat is filled with hatchery fish. One biologist concluded that hatchery fish waste the productivity of the habitat and the investments to restore it.
ODFW is being very myopic, of course, as it's not so much the removal of 1-2% of the run that's screwing things up, as steelhead are remarkably resilient and will replenish themselves (we harvested probably 50% of the run, or more, for decades before things got noticeably bad). I think the broodstock program is horrible for a whole different set of reasons:
1) ODFW sold the public on a program that they claimed would have more conservation benefits and be less harmful to wild fish. As Chilcote has shown, this is 100% false.
2) We now have hatchery fish spawning on top of our Feb-May wild fish. No studies have even been conducted on this, which really pisses me off (though Chilcote told me that this is going to be his next area of focus, should start a study on this later in the year).
3) On the Nestucca and Wilson, wild fish at least had the river to themselves from February to May up until 2004. Now it's a constant onslaught of hatchery pukes. Summers from May - January, Alsea stock from November - February, and "wild" broodstock from January - May.
4) Increased pressure.There used to be minimal pressure from Feb-April, and now it's a parade of drift boats. The gravel from Beaver to Blaine is no longer even utilized as the fish aren't going to spawn when 25 boats are going over them.
I would like to thank Bill Bakke and Spencer Miles from Native Fish Society for their contribution to this subject

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