Salmon and steelhead have been evolving since the Miocene (5 to 23 million years ago). They've evolved to survive numerous threats. The original threats to salmon before the Industrial Revolution were mostly things like volcanic eruptions and the resulting debris flows that could wipe out everything in a watershed. But salmon, which are known for returning to the same stream where they were spawned, were able to avoid the occasional volcanic extirpation and other threats from a genetics standpoint (perhaps due to having twice as many chomosome arms and DNA content as other related species, which may have helped salmon develop new genetic characteristics that aided species survival in a changing environment). And salmon were able to survive extirpation events from a genetics standpoint by also having a few individuals stray to other water bodies whereby they passed on the traits of the population from one river system to another, creating different individuals than could be achieved through a more homogenous group.
Anyway, I'll spare you my clunky walk through evolution to simply say (if we were in court, I'd make you concede this point) our wild and native salmonids are a superior group of fish that are capable of adapting to a changing environment, at least much more than are hatchery fish, which are from a much smaller gene pool and are essentially clones of a small set of genes that were chosen for a number of (and many times arbitrary) reasons. In some hatchery operations there were at least some native fish to a river drainage that were used in the beginnings of that hatchery operation (and bully for those operations), but in many others fish culturists simply went to a mainstem dam and picked out some fish they figured would be strong genetically and went back and started a hatchery with these fish that may have been from a stream hundreds of miles away and adapted to that stream for reasons that are 180 degrees the opposite in the stream the hatchery is now dumping their offspring.
I don't know, if that was a clear as suspended solids after a good churning, but I think you get that wild genetics are a better menu than what any hatchery can do, even the ones that used native stock to begin with.
Anyway, how is counting hatchery fish with the wild ones a threat to wild salmonids in the Snake River Basin and elsewhere? First of all, as highly attuned as the human mind is, it is easily distracted and confused. We typically like things to be as simple as possible for us in order for us to understand concepts that are generally accepted and agreed upon. Today, we have agencies, a veritable alphabet soup of state and federal bureaucracies, tasked with various parts of salmon restoration. Some of these agencies have mission statements conducive to this sort of work and others have missions that are contrary to salmon survival and are being forced to do this work.
Sadly, everyone likes a little sugar on everything. I say sadly because that leads to Diabetes. Over the years, and in the 1990s, salmon runs were so terrible the idea of breaching four lower Snake River Dams almost came to a head in the early 2000s. It is my belief that an anomalous run of anadramous fish (say that three times fast) in 2001 and a country whose attention was drawn to more pressing events in the same year were what ultimately put the idea of dam breaching in the lower Snake on the cryo-train. But another thing has also been evolving as this salmon recovery (which looks like long-term coma) continued into its second decade, and that other thing was the slow and steady buy off of the angling community through the reestablishment of salmon fisheries, which are and should always be categorized as hatchery fisheries and not what we enjoyed before, which were wild fisheries (albeit hatchery influenced for about a century). See, suspended solids in water, see how murky hatcheries make this stuff?
Anyway, So for the past 15 years we've had reestablished fisheries coming online and with each passing year anglers are getting farther and farther away from the pleasure of wild/native fisheries. In fact, most anglers I've run into dislike hooking a wild/native or natural fish and not because they tell me they recognize how special that fish is, but because laws do not allow them to take a wild/native or naturally spawned fish home for supper. Anglers are taught (and have been for decades, actually, not just the last 15 years) you get to keep the adipose fin-clipped fish and you have to return that fish with the proper anatomy. By the way, I do wonder how long it will take before hatcheries are forced to come up with a new way to mark fish, since it is pretty clear that the adipose fin isn't a genetic relic, but rather an evolutionary necessity for their survival.
Moving on, these agencies (some with missions that are inline with recovery and others that are being forced to "help" out because their real missions run counter to salmonid survival) have quite often run to the media to proclaim the "record runs" of salmon that are coming this year or that year. However, they are first using a healthy bit of hyperbole (I like that word because it is from the Greek word meaning "overcasting," which is perfect for any piscatorial editorial) and simply not true for a number of reasons. First off, record runs instantly makes us think of some wall of fish that even Lewis and Clark did not observe on their voyage of discovery. Because no run in the past 15 years has even come close to being half of the salmon runs prior to 1870 (some 64-65 years after Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery). The use of record runs is deceiving, and only true if they define the time frame as something very recent, which lowers the bar considerably. Even then the use of record runs typically occurs during the forecast period and then there's the sound of crickets after the runs are over.
But, and I've gone and buried my most important point, the real tragedy of the record runs hyperbole is that it obscures the wild salmon numbers (which you can see on the front page of this website and on the front page of the Salmonblog anyday you wish). And therein lies the great threat to wild salmonid survival. The general population, which we all know because we makeup a small portion of the general population, are easily distracted and confused. We are given a false narrative, one that trumpets a couple million fish coming up the Columbia/Snake and we are not told that only 200,000-400,000 of those fish are of natural origin or 10-20 percent of the total run. We are also quick to forget that we dump 141 million hatchery fish into that Columbia/Snake system each year and we only get back at best less than 1/7 of them as adults. The majority of those hatchery fish are lost to tribal and sport fisheries and to hatchery propagation. Very few are allowed to spawn naturally in the stream and a vital element of the salmon cycle, Pacific Ocean nutrient transfer into the continent is lost and that leaves our already nutrient deficient streams less and less able to feed subsequent generations of salmonids.
But today's takeaway message is hatchery fish are inferior to wild/native or natural fish and counting them together clouds the fact that true salmon recovery (you know the wild ones that actually count when we talk about the Endangered Species Act) continues to tread water ultimately leaving wild/native and/or natural salmonids in the Columbia/Snake system more susceptible to extirpation events than they would be if we focus on true wild/native salmonid recovery and spend less time and effort falsely inflating fish runs with the inferior hatchery product, which also compete with wild fish for resources in river and in the ocean.
Well, I guess I had more to say than I thought I did when I sat down this morning. I think I'll run this in both blogs.