Conserving this Nation’s fish and other aquatic resources cannot be successful without the partnership of Tribes; they manage or influence some of the most important aquatic habitats both on and off reservations. In addition, the Federal government and the Service have distinct and unique obligations toward Tribes based on trust responsibility, treaty provisions, and statutory mandates.
NW Tribes Working To Develop Better Hatchery Fish
For years critics have included hatcheries in their list of problems for wild salmon and steelhead. Among the gripes: hatchery fish weaken the species’ gene pool by breeding with wild fish. Scientists at a laboratory in Idaho are determined to change that.
The Hagerman Fish Culture Experiment Center is located in the Southern Idaho desert. The location is no accident. Water pours from the rock walls of the deep canyons carved 15,000 years ago by the Bonneville Flood. The water comes from the giant underground aquifer that supplies clean, fresh water that maintains a constant 60-degrees year round.
This is the perfect place to raise fish. There are several trout farms along this section of the Snake River. It’s also home to the U.S. National Fish Hatchery and the small Hagerman Fish Culture Experiment Center. The center is operated by the University of Idaho, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
The tribes set up shop here about a decade ago to research salmon and steelhead genetics. Shawn Narum was the first researcher hired by the tribes. Today he is the lead research scientist. Narum explains that the tribes have spent years researching ways to reduce the genetic effects on natural salmon and steelhead populations.
“What they are trying to do is reform hatchery practices so they are having less genetic effects on these natural populations,” he says. Northwest waters are awash with controversy when it comes to wild salmon’s ability to survive with hatchery fish in their midst. Decades ago, hatcheries were thought to be the perfect solution to sustaining the iconic runs of salmon and steelhead as river-blocking dams were constructed throughout the Northwest.
But by the 1990s, criticism of hatcheries continued to plague the Northwest. When bigger hatchery-reared fish are released into rivers, they gobble up juvenile wild fish and compete for prey. There was also mounting concern that fish in the crowded confines of hatcheries were more likely to spread disease.
Hatchery fish are less likely to possess the traits rewarded by survival in the wild. They are fed on a regular schedule, protected from predators, and grow larger than their wild counterparts. Later in life, they can end up mating with wild fish, passing along inferior genetic traits to offspring.
Nick Gayeski is the staff scientist at the Wild Fish Conservancy in Washington state. He expressed fears that after several generations. There won’t be any truly wild salmon and steelhead left in the Northwest.