Salmon Without RiversTranslated Introduction to the Russian Edition
Author: James Lichatowich
While visiting Kamchatka in July of 2001, I was treated to sights that were truly remarkable, especially for a salmon biologist. We flew over whole watersheds where the footprints of development and exploitation were nonexistent or so light as to be hardly discernible. From my reading prior to the trip, I knew that the salmon and steelhead in these rivers followed diverse life histories, a sign of healthy habitat and healthy salmon populations. For three decades prior to the trip, I had worked on rivers in various stages of degradation and salmon populations that were a small fraction of their historical abundance. Seeing rivers such as the Kol (Kamchatka Peninsula) made me feel I was looking into the past and seeing what we in the Pacific Northwest have lost.
The trip to Kamchatka was not entirely a visual experience. The group I was travelling with did a lot of listening to Russian biologists, administrators, politicians and environmentalists. Woven into those conversations was a familiar story. Offshore fishing rights to salmon were being sold to Japanese fishing fleets and hatcheries would be used to compensate for the excessive harvest that was expected to occur. Artificial propagation would replace effective stewardship of the salmon. I was hearing a repeat of the first chapter in a familiar story, a story that wrecked the once abundant salmon and steelhead runs in the Pacific Northwest. It is a story that has great appeal and severe consequences. Its appearance during my visit to Kamchatka was disquieting. What happened in the Pacific Northwest has important lessons for salmon managers in places where pristine rivers and healthy salmon populations still exist.
The first Euro-Americans to arrive in the Pacific Northwest found large runs of salmon in all rivers with access to the sea. What they discovered was an entrepreneur's dream. There was no need to hunt the salmon on the high seas. These large fish with high quality flesh literally swam into the fishermen's nets. Adult salmon returned to their home stream at the same time each year, which meant the fishermen and cannery operators knew when to have their machines, boats, nets and supply of cans ready. Their uniform size led to mechanical butchering so salmon could be converted to cash at a faster and faster rate. Salmon easily made the transition from the subsistence economy of the Native Americans to the industrial economy of the newcomers.
Salmon harvest and the canning industry grew rapidly, so the cannery operators and salmon managers began to worry about over harvest and a diminishing supply of fish. They believed they could improve on nature and maintain the supply of salmon if they took control of salmon production. They believed fish factories, as the early hatcheries were called, would accomplish that goal. Fish factories would give humans control over the production of salmon and once that was achieved salmon managers would increase the supply of these valuable fish the same way agriculture increased the production of food crops and animals.
In the 1870s, salmon managers, cannery operators, fishermen and politicians enthusiastically accepted salmon hatcheries. They believed hatcheries would maintain the supply of salmon even though they had absolutely no scientific evidence to support that belief. Economics generated the enthusiasm. If hatcheries could maintain the supply of fish in spite of excessive harvest, then concrete ponds could replace rivers, and rivers could be subjected to intensive development without diminishing the supply of salmon to the canneries. Hatcheries were the key to the minimal regulation of irrigation withdrawals, grazing, logging, mining, dams, hydroelectric production, industrial and urban development and pollution. Hatcheries were the silent partner facilitating the development and degradation of the region's rivers. Everyone benefited. Salmon managers received fat budgets, politicians were given credit for a solution to a potentially severe conflict and business had access to rivers with little regulation. A bargain was struck. Hatcheries were exchanged for habitat.
The bargain and the rapid growth of fish factories quickly led to the adoption of a simple salmon management model: hatcheries supply fish to salmon fisheries, harvest is then regulated to allow enough salmon to return to the hatchery to start the cycle over. This simple model is our salmon story, the story we have been telling ourselves for over a century. It's a story based on the false assumption that hatchery fish do not require healthy river habitat. Hatcheries replaced spawning and rearing habitat. Rivers became simple conduits to the sea for juvenile salmon produced in fish factories. This rendered the ecology of the river and salmon habitat irrelevant and led to the belief that habitat could be traded for hatcheries.
In effect our salmon story created a mythological salmon production system, which we then superimposed onto the natural rivers and salmon populations with devastating results. It minimized the importance of wild salmon populations, allowed a century of habitat degradation and justified the exchange of habitat for hatcheries. These are the most destructive consequences of the massive use of hatcheries.
Trading salmon habitat for fish factories in a mythological production system might have been justified if it had worked, if artificial propagation had maintained the supply of salmon. It didn't. Salmon and steelhead are extinct in over 40 percent of their historical range and salmon in most of the rest of their range in the Pacific Northwest are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, much of the salmon recovery effort in the Pacific Northwest is based on the same hatchery-oriented story that caused the depletion. A management system based on hatcheries is difficult to change, even after it is clear that it cannot maintain the supply of salmon and that it makes the problems worse.
Perhaps it is not too late for places like Kamchatka to benefit from our mistakes. That is why I was very pleased to learn that the Wild Salmon Center and their Russian colleagues were going to produce a Russian translation of my book Salmon without Rivers. The lessons from this side of the Pacific, which are described in my book, are clear. Hatcheries are no substitute for healthy habitat and competent resource stewardship. Once salmon management accepts the crutch of artificial propagation, it will have a difficult time freeing itself from its grip.