Salmon Hatcheries as Fish Factories: Forgetting the Lessons of Leopold

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Seattle University Environmental Law Review



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Seattle J. Env't L.


The public views salmon hatcheries as a lifeline for the species, at least in the Columbia Basin, which experienced near-extinction due to damming of the Columbia River during the first half of the 20th century. Jim Lichotowich's new book, "Salmon, People, and Place: A Biologist's Search for Salmon Recovery," is an indictment of reliance on hatcheries as a mitigation measure for habitat loss, such as that caused by dams and land management practices. Lichotowich, a respected salmon biologist, whose views have been sought by both governments and those who sue them, shows how hatcheries damage wild spawning salmon through competition for food and habitat, disease, genetic drift, and incentives to overharvest. In a very real sense, the fishery agencies charged with protecting wild runs of salmon have been captured by those who fund artificial mitigation measures in a misguided effort to maintain unsustainable sport and commercial harvest levels. Heavy reliance on hatcheries violates basic ecological principles first articulated over 60 years ago by the great wildlife scientist, Aldo Leopold. This review applauds the effort to expose the false promise of salmon hatcheries but cautions that Lichotowich might be misinterpreted to suggest that the basic problem with salmon recovery lies with the fishery agencies and their attachment to hatcheries. Although the "industrial model" of salmon recovery Lichotowich depicts is certainly a large part of the reason why salmon recovery efforts have proved both so expensive and so ineffective, the principal cause of salmon habitat loss -- at least in the Columbia Basin, home to the largest historic salmon runs in the Lower 48 -- is dam construction and operation, mostly federal dams. Developing a viable salmon recovery plan in the future will require not only reduced reliance on hatcheries but also changed hydroelectric operating practices and removal of some dams.

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