Robert T. Lackey

Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences

Oregon State University

Corvallis, Oregon  97331

Citation:  Lackey, Robert T.  2022.  What Would Happen to Columbia River Basin Wild Salmon Runs If Hatchery Stocking and Fishing Ended?  Published in an Oregon State University Blog, September 7.



            Wild (non-hatchery origin) salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin are not doing well.  Basin-wide, wild salmon and steelhead are roughly 2-4% of their pre-1850s levels.  Even the total (wild plus hatchery) current salmon and steelhead run is now less than 10-20% of the pre-1850s levels.  About 140 million ocean-going juvenile salmon and steelhead are released annually from fish hatcheries in the Columbia River Basin.  Currently, the annual harvest (i.e., from commercial, recreational, and tribal fishing) is strongly dominated by fish of hatchery origin.

            Even without major human intervention, salmon runs (whenever I refer to “salmon,” I include steelhead) are notoriously variable annually and decadally.  Still, the overall downward trajectory has been apparent over the long term (150 years).  Interestingly, the current low overall salmon abundance has not shown an obvious continuing downward trend for several decades.  Nor has the trend been plainly upward.

           Deciding how important preserving wild (vs. hatchery origin) salmon runs and/or sustaining fishing (vs. the myriad competing public policy priorities such as flood control, energy production, agriculture, etc.) are decisions that society continues to make either explicitly or implicitly.  Of course, scientists do not make such tradeoffs, but they should play an important, even essential, role as sources of impartial scientific information and assessments.

            One important role is providing expert judgment about complex scientific questions that are beyond the capability of the traditional scientific method.  Thus, scientists are understandably uncomfortable when asked to answer “scientific” questions about policy-relevant questions that the scientific method cannot answer.

            To help provide relevant “expert” scientific professional judgment to policy and management deliberations, I conducted a “thought experiment” by asking Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead scientists how (1) stopping fishing and (2) closing hatcheries would most likely affect the remaining wild runs.

            In the persistent political controversy over salmon policy tradeoffs, some advocates argue that one or both changes (i.e., stop fishing and close hatcheries) would increase the abundance of wild salmon in the Basin — perhaps even increase the wild plus hatchery salmon abundance.  Probably the most well-known example of “close the hatcheries to save wild salmon” advocacy is the Patagonia-produced film Artifishal:  The Fight to Save Wild Salmon, which millions of people have viewed.  Many other organizations push similar policy perspectives, although not with a billionaire’s financial backing or marketing platform.

            Other advocacy organizations push the assertion that continued fishing and hatchery stocking are not currently among the major causes of the very low levels of wild salmon in the Columbia River Basin.  An example of such advocacy is the video Benefishal, a direct response to the Patagonia-funded film.  Such advocates typically argue that the main reason that any Basin salmon fishing still exists is because of hatcheries.

            Either view — and the many nuances between the two — might seem counterintuitive until the array of past and current policy drivers are considered.

Ecological Context

            As a start, consider how much the physical and biological features of the Columbia River Basin have changed since the pre-1850s.  Unlike native salmon and steelhead, non-native anadromous fish species thrive in the highly altered aquatic environment.  A simple statistic captures the sobering reality.  In 2021, the Independent Scientific Advisory Board of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (ISAB) determined that “ . . . in 2019, about 30 times more shad passed over Bonneville Dam than salmonids (around 7.5 million vs. 0.25 million).”  American shad, a non-native anadromous species, is one of many non-native fish species that thrive in the present-day Columbia River Basin.  American shad, walleye, crappie, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, bluegill, yellow perch, channel catfish, and northern pike are all relatively new species to the Basin.  Their success is not surprising to biologists because these species are well adapted to current (and likely future) ecological conditions within the Basin.  In stark contrast to native salmon and steelhead, these new arrivals thrive by expanding into much of the highly altered Basin aquatic environment.

            It is not that salmon are particularly delicate species, but like all species, they have specific environmental requirements.  They can also adjust to some unfavorable conditions.  For example, salmon do “stray” in an attempt to find better environments.  In one well-known example, the famous Bridge of the Gods blockage of the Columbia River around 600 years ago blocked salmon for several years.  When salmon eventually could move past the barrier, they re-colonized the middle and upper Basin fairly quickly.  Such blockages were surely common in the Columbia Gorge on the millennial time scale.

            Even before the Bridge of the Gods and similar landslides, the Bretz Floods scoured the mainstem Columbia multiple times 13,000 – 15,000 years ago.  The distribution and abundance of salmon in the Columbia River Basin would drastically change with each flood (and recovery).

            Among salmon scientists, the mid- or pre-1850s are typically selected as the baseline period to benchmark current salmon abundance.  However, the 1850s was toward the end of the Little Ice Age, a relatively cool period (1300s – 1800s) that was likely much more favorable to salmon than the Modern Warm Period (1900s – ).

            Complicating matters further is the biological reality that salmon and steelhead are fairly adaptable and thus survive in diverse habitats across broad geographic expanses.  As populations, they often successfully extend their distribution into different environments.  For example, salmon were successfully introduced and spread widely in New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, northwestern Russia, and the U.S./Canada Great Lakes.  They colonized other rivers from relatively limited initial introductions and often established self-perpetuating runs.  For a contemporary and active example, pink salmon (the species native to the Columbia River Basin), introduced into northwestern Russia, are now expanding into rivers in Norway and probably Sweden.

            Caveats aside for the Columbia River Basin, what was the “natural” abundance of salmon and steelhead in prior times?  Specifically, how many salmon and steelhead did the Basin support before the 1850s — before most human-driven alterations dramatically reduced salmon numbers?  After evaluating all available historical reconstruction data, the Columbia River Basin Independent Science Advisory Board that the Basin-wide pre-1850s aggregate run was likely in the range of 5 to 9 million adult fish per year, with the most likely level at around 6 million.  Some other estimates are higher, with the upper bound at 15-16 million.  Reconstructing historical run size nearly two centuries ago is challenging — and such assessments should be accepted cautiously.

            These days, fundamental technical questions about the influence of fishing, hatcheries, and other factors in controlling the number of salmon (wild and hatchery origin) remain difficult to answer, but have important policy and management implications.  For example, many advocates argue that fishing for Columbia River Basin stocks is only viable because hatchery releases sustain current runs.  Further and usually, only fin-clipped (hatchery-origin) salmon may be kept, which lessens fishing mortality on wild fish.  Without hatchery supplementation, the argument goes, wild runs would be too small to support sustainable harvests at levels demanded by fishing interests.

            Classifying a salmon as “wild” requires a degree of arbitrariness.  To some, a “native” species may be interchangeable with “wild.”  To others, “wild” might mean an individual fish whose ancestors were never in a hatchery (i.e., not “naturalized”).  However, when I use “wild” to classify a salmon, I use the definitionAny salmon spawned naturally and whose parents spawned naturally.”  This choice is subjective and used for communication clarity rather than implying a policy preference.  This definition means that the offspring of a hatchery fish that spawned naturally (without human intervention) in natural (non-hatchery) habitat are categorized as “wild.”  At the end of the day, what society defines as “wild” is a policy or political call, not a scientific one, but it is important to be clear about which boundaries are used to classify individual salmon as wild or hatchery origin.

            From another perspective, some say that the only reason there are any “wild” salmon in the Basin is that they (the so-called wild fish) are offspring from hatchery strays that spawned naturally in natural habitat and thus are legally “wild” fish.

            Conversely, others claim that most wild runs would flourish without hatcheries and reach sufficient levels to support significant fishing pressure.  Thus, hatchery operations are a cause of the low wild runs, and, therefore, they ought to be closed to allow wild runs to rebound.

            Of course, answers to these and similar questions involve some hard scientific “facts,” but such questions are far too complicated to answer with traditional scientific experiments and analysis.  Modeling might provide a tempting analytical tool, but understanding key ecological/mathematical relationships is limited.  Further, the Basin itself has changed in fundamental ways (i.e., dams and substantial changes in land and resource use) in the preceding two centuries.  Thus, the opinion of acknowledged experts likely provides the most credible answers to the Basin’s most pivotal and complex ecological questions.

Wild Salmon Recovery

            No matter how obvious the past may be to salmon experts, it is important to start salmon recovery discussions with a little historical context.  Nearly all salmon runs in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho are a shadow of their pre-1850s levels.  Further, most of the remaining runs are largely maintained by releases of hatchery-raised fish.  Wild salmon comprise only a small portion of most runs.  Their overall abundance is a sliver of historical levels.  The few relatively abundant current runs are mainly species (i.e., pink and chum salmon) that spend little time in freshwater before migrating to the sea.

            This decline has been known for 150 years, and concerted and substantial efforts have been implemented to recover salmon runs.  Especially during the past few decades, the extent and cost of formal recovery efforts for wild salmon have substantially increased — largely a response to lawsuits filed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

            Every watershed presents unique features and complications.  Further, the species are highly variable, and there are exceptions to almost every biological generality.  However, overall, the Columbia River Basin follows the typical downward trend in salmon abundance seen throughout California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia.

            While using hatcheries to sustain relatively large salmon runs is plausible — although technically challenging — the requirements of the ESA relative to wild salmon have made the role of hatcheries in maintaining or increasing runs legally contentious.

            In my interactions with professional colleagues, they agree — usually only when speaking unofficially — that current efforts will not successfully recover wild salmon to abundances that would assure self-sustainability and support sizable sport, commercial, and tribal harvests.  Arbitrarily, such a level of abundance would need to be at least a third of the typical pre-1850s run size to provide politically adequate fishing opportunities, but would still be far short of historical abundance.

            But when technical and scientific judgments go against “conventional wisdom,” are scientists likely to be candid publicly?  Perhaps, when professional scientists can keep their technical and scientific judgments anonymous (and avoid attacks from policy advocates), their “best guess” might be different.

The Thought Experiment

            The thought experiment involved identifying 100 nationally and internationally known experts on the Columbia salmon situation who have published widely in peer-reviewed scientific literature.  Based on their extensive scientific publications and other professional activities, these individuals are well known to those who work on salmon issues.  All have worked on Columbia River Basin (and elsewhere) salmon issues for decades.

            I promised anonymity to all respondents.  In the past, working with experts, I was surprised that even “big names” are reluctant to be quoted on such important ecological and policy questions.  Specifically, when evaluating salmon issues in the past, I have been amazed to learn that what experts say in public is sometimes not the same as what they say “off the record.”  Hence, I guaranteed anonymity to all participants to increase the probability of obtaining more candid responses.

            Here is the question sent to each:

            I hope you are willing to contemplate and answer with an “expert opinion” (i.e., “a guesstimate”) about the future of salmon in the Columbia River Basin.  Briefly, here is the context for the question . . . after someone watched a recent Trout Unlimited presentation of mine, he asked a question that required, on my part, pure speculation to answer.  Essentially the listener asked for my opinion about the role of hatcheries and fishing in controlling the current and future abundance of wild salmon in the Columbia River Basin.  I offered him a guesstimate along with the usual caveats and cautions.  Still, I am not sure that my answer reflects the thinking of the “scientific community,” specifically those most knowledgeable about the issue (that would be you).  So . . . let me describe the thought experiment and formulate the precise question.

            To set the context for this thought experiment (and for some difficult-to-imagine scenario), assume that the U.S. Government decides to immediately and permanently (1) eliminate all releases from hatcheries (i.e., close them all forever) and (2) stop all fishing directly targeting salmon and steelhead.  Now . . . allow for time for at least a half dozen generations of completely “wild” spawning (i.e., several generations of fish whose recent ancestors never were in a hatchery).  Further, allow for time to pass so enough years of run size data would somewhat dampen the noise from ocean variations and other climatic factors.  So . . .  the question . . . after 20-30 years or so of (1) zero hatchery releases;  and (2) zero targeted fishing . . . roughly what would be the overall run size in the Columbia Basin compared to current average runs?  Stated differently, the question is, ‘approximately how many wild salmon and steelhead would the Basin support without salmon fishing and without hatchery releases, and how would that abundance compare to the past several decades and the run levels of the mid-1800s?’  Be assured that your response will be entirely anonymous.  Because you have spent years immersed in this and similar aspects of salmon management and policy, I look forward to reading your “best guess” answer.”

            Although the participants are not listed here, they are all well-known in the world of professional salmon scientists, managers, and policy makers.  At least in the salmon world, they are “household names” that have been professionally active for years.  Very importantly, I thank them all for their candor in answering the question and for trusting me to maintain their anonymity.


            The Appendix includes the 58 complete answers reported and discussed here.  I reworded (with the author’s permission) some initial responses to provide some measure of formatting consistency.

            Of the 100 initially identified experts, I was able to send email requests to 96.  Of those, 60 agreed to respond to the question.  Two original “acceptors” eventually withdrew their answers because of a concern that the “opposition” or “other side” would use the results to undermine the policy choices that these two individuals strongly supported.  In the end, there were 58 of the 60 formally responded to the question.  Six of the 96 declined to answer the question, typically citing health or other personal reasons.  Three others agreed to answer, but never did submit one, even after receiving an email follow-up request.  Twenty-nine never acknowledged receiving the initial email request, nor a follow-up request.  Invalid email addresses were likely a cause for at least some of these non-responders, especially because some of these individuals were no longer formally employed by fisheries organizations.   A summary of the participation rates is presented in Table 1).

            As for the other 58 individuals who did provide estimates, how much their answers were affected by personal or employer policy preference is unknown.  However, based on some policy perspectives expressed in emails, policy preferences likely were a factor in some cases.   Most (60%) of the contacted salmon experts participated, probably providing a representative sample of prevailing opinion.

            I expected to receive many “back-of-the-envelope” and one-sentence guesses, and this was common, but so were detailed analyses and answers.  I was impressed by how many respondents took the time to provide logical backing for their key conclusions.  Some wrote pages of detailed analysis justifying every assumption used in answering the question.  Others bluntly acknowledged that their answer was a “shot in the dark,” and rigorous analysis would not change the reality that the answer provided was an “expert opinion” and nothing more.

            As expected with such a general and speculative question, even with light editing (with the author’s involvement and permission), there was considerable variation in how each person worded the answer.  To simplify analyzing the overall results, I arbitrarily classified each response into one of 5 generic answers (Table 2 and Appendix).  Not every prediction was precisely worded, so in those few cases, and after reading the totality of the background submission, I used my best judgment.


            Table 2 provides a digest of what the experts conclude about whether stopping hatchery releases and fishing will significantly affect the overall wild run size.  I assigned each prediction to one of five general responses (see Appendix).

            About 57% (A and B) predicted that wild runs would end up the same (or decrease) in the absence of hatchery stocking and fishing.   Such a conclusion must be based on the presumption that hatchery releases somehow “support” the so-called “wild” run, perhaps a case of hatchery strays spawning in the wild and their offspring “replenishing” wild runs.  Regardless of the reasoning, most experts did not expect any improvement in overall wild salmon abundance.

            About 83% (A, B, and C) predicted that current (wild plus hatchery) salmon abundance (overall Columbia Basin run) would decline without hatchery stocking and fishing.

            About 43% (C, D, and E) predicted that wild runs would eventually increase, but most of these predictions were for less than the current wild plus hatchery level.  The implicit assumption here is that either fishing or hatcheries (or both) inhibit wild salmon abundance.

            About 5% (E) of the respondents predicted an overall abundance greater than the current total (wild plus hatchery) after salmon fishing was stopped and hatcheries were closed.

            Many respondents provided detailed explanations of how they arrived at their bottom line.  The debate among scientists about the causal mechanisms will surely go on for decades, but resolving that debate was beyond the scope of this exercise.  What is important here is to tease out a credible, consensus prediction that might provide policy makers with useful scientific input when addressing the unpleasant choices about the future of Columbia River Basin salmon (vs. all the other competing and popular public priorities).

            To reinforce a prior explanation about the source of these predictions, who are the experts I selected for this survey?  Almost all were practicing scientists with advanced degrees and publications (not hatchery or fisheries managers).  Although only an educated guess, based on my past professional interactions with them, I guess that most probably tend toward the “conservation” side of the salmon policy debate, rather than the “harvest” side.

            A final caveat is important to underscore:  these scientific predictions are judgments (i.e., expert opinions).  Presumably, the ones making the scientific judgments are the most knowledgeable about the topic, but these predictions involve assessing complicated scientific issues and will always involve considerable scientific controversy. 

            More broadly, and perhaps more pertinent here, such information is only one input into fisheries management and policy.  For example, how important to society is restoring runs of wild salmon to support genetic diversity priorities vs. increasing hatchery-supported runs that would sustain higher harvest rates.  Scientific input is important for settling such tradeoff questions, of course, but it is only one element driving public policy choices (i.e., the competing values and priorities that play out during the political process).


            The experts who participated in this thought experiment did not seem to believe that closing hatcheries and stopping fishing are currently key limitations to increasing the abundance of wild salmon in the Columbia River Basin.  In addition, based on many narrative comments accompanying the predictions, many participants voluntarily noted that a wild salmon recovery strategy that has any chance of restoring wild runs to anything approaching pre-1850s numbers must address several overarching and undisputed realities.  They were not arguing that society ought to change these constraining realities, just acknowledging that it is unrealistic to expect much change in wild salmon runs without doing so.

            So, according to the surveyed experts, if closing hatcheries and stopping fishing do not appear to be the key to restoring wild runs, what is?  Regardless, what are these other realities and how must they be changed to recover wild salmon to even a third of their historical level?   Let’s look at some key ones.

            Anyone even moderately familiar with the history of North American West Coast salmon is well aware of the main causes of the dire state of salmon runs along the West Coast.  These causes are well documented scientifically and include fluctuating and long-term climatic and ocean conditions, dams, mining, water pollution, habitat alteration, over-fishing, irrigation water withdrawals, predation on salmon by many species (often non-native fish species), and many other influences.

            Anywhere wild salmon were once plentiful (Europe, Asian Far East, Eastern North America), the decline in their abundance is roughly inversely proportional to the area’s growth in the human population.  Over decades and centuries, as the human population expanded in these regions, the size of salmon runs declined to minuscule levels.

            Since the mid-1800s, the West Coast (including the Columbia River Basin) is playing out similarly for wild salmon.  For example, from a pre-1850 human population level of a few hundred thousand, California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho are now home to 54 million people.  Over the same period, wild salmon abundance in the four States has declined from roughly 50 million to a few million.  And the future?  Assuming expected human population growth in these four States, by 2100, they will be home to somewhere between 150 and 200 million people — a tripling or quadrupling by the end of this century — less than 80 years from now.

            For Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, the human population in 2100 would be roughly 40 – 55 million.  Even though many of these people will not reside within the Basin, they will directly affect the Basin’s future.  So, what about wild salmon in 2100?

            Without dramatic changes in economic policies and lifestyles, future options for restoring salmon runs to significant, sustainable levels will be greatly constrained.  Consider that by 2100, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho will have millions more people, including their additional demand for houses, roads, stores, food, coffee shops, air conditioning, drinking water, office buildings, and golf courses — the list is very long.

            To illustrate these distasteful policy tradeoffs with one well-known example, how does society choose to balance using water to grow food (e.g., irrigation) vs. using the same water to sustain wild salmon?

            Returning to the beginning of this article, not surprisingly, many fish species thrive in the highly altered Columbia River Basin.  Although unappealing to many salmon advocates, perhaps any future analysis should address what is realistically plausible?  From a fisheries management and policy perspective, it would surely be easier to maintain sustainable populations of many highly valued non-native West Coast fish species (e.g., American shad, walleye, bluegill, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, channel catfish, brown trout, brook trout, and striped bass).  Unlike salmon, these species flourish in the even more altered Sacramento–San Joaquin river system.

            Conversely, perhaps restoring (and even maintaining) wild salmon and steelhead runs is so politically popular that nearly any cost or sacrifice is warranted.  Such questions are adjudicated in the larger political debates — the events all salmon technocrats read about daily.

            In conclusion, based on these survey results, I infer that the current overall abundance of wild salmon in the Columbia River Basin (roughly 2-4% of the pre-1850s level) is within the expected range, given the amount and accessibility of high-quality salmon habitat, past and current ecological changes, and overarching trends in oceanic and climatic conditions.

            Thus, considering the policy implications of the survey results (summarized in Table 2), eliminating hatcheries and fishing is very unlikely to increase the current overall total (hatchery and wild) run size.  In fact, it is possible (even likely according to the experts) that current wild salmon runs (wild) would decrease from their already low levels.

            Policy-wise, perhaps society is prepared to double down and support the governmentally and individually painful choice to restore wild salmon despite a warming climate, greatly altered aquatic habitats, and opposing demands for flood control, food production, electricity, and other lifestyle desires.  Such questions are only partially answered by scientific and technical experts (such as those I surveyed).  Rather, these choices primarily depend on competing, often mutually exclusive, individual and societal priorities.  These tradeoffs are wholly unpleasant politically;   thus, it should not be surprising that options that would actually recover wild salmon are rarely implemented.

* * * * * * * * * * * *


            Categorization of responses (58) to the question “What Would Happen to Wild Salmon Runs if Hatchery Stocking and Fishing Were Ended in the Columbia River Basin?” with the number (and percentage) of respondents agreeing with each prediction.

A – Predicted wild-only Basin-wide run would be less than the current wild-only Basin-wide run.   22 (38%)

  1. “Current total aggregate Basin run of salmon would drop by roughly 80% with the resulting wild-only runs collectively being less than 1% of pre-1850s runs on average.”  A
  2. “When things settle out after closing fishing and eliminating hatcheries, I expect the net effect in the Basin to be a decline in the overall abundance of wild salmon because of diverse other adverse factors.”  A
  3. “Stopping all additions of hatchery fish and eliminating all salmon fishing in the Basin, after a couple of decades, will result in a decline in natural-origin fish (i.e., wild salmon and steelhead) compared to the current overall abundance level of wild salmon.”  A
  4. “I would expect that most of the small populations in the Snake and Upper Columbia would be extinct or functionally extinct and, for the larger populations elsewhere in the Basin, I would expect that they would be at about 10% of their current abundance and declining towards extinction.”  A
  5. “If all salmon fishing and salmon hatchery production in the Columbia was terminated, I would expect salmon remnant runs to survive for a while, but over the following 30 years, climate change will ultimately make the Columbia and the associated marine environment uninhabitable for salmon.”  A
  6. “Carrying capacity is the key to answering this question because almost none of the current aquatic environments in the Basin has the same capacity as in the pre-1850s and, therefore, a few decades after closing all hatcheries and stopping all fishing, some of the fully wild runs could be extirpated, and others could be slightly larger than the wild portion of current runs.”  A
  7. “Over the following few decades, the current average total of all hatchery and wild salmon and steelhead in the Basin would be reduced 90% from current levels to approximately 1% of the pre-1850s level.”  A
  8. “Without salmon fishing and with a total closure of all salmon hatcheries in the Basin and with all other policy drivers remaining in place,  the overall total run in the Columbia Basin (wild only) would decrease and end up close to zero after a few decades.”  A
  9. “After several decades of fluctuations, after stopping fishing and closing hatcheries, the most likely aggregate Columbia run size of wild adult salmon would be approximately 10-20% of current run size (both hatchery and wild).”  A
  10. “. . . the end of hatchery production in the Columbia will lead to the extinction of naturally produced salmon.”  A
  11. “My gut response to the bottom line of the question —  with no fishing and no hatchery releases — I suspect Columbia River Basin salmon will substantially decline from current wild/hatchery levels, and some local populations would be heading towards extinction.”  A
  12. “After several decades of no fishing and no hatcheries, wild salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia would likely drop to 80% overall of the current aggregate level of wild runs.”  A
  13. “ . . . there would be less than a quarter of the wild salmon in existence today in the Columbia Basin.”  A
  14. “Without fishing and hatchery operations, the overall abundance of wild salmon and steelhead would decrease substantially  (to about 50%) due to loss of hatchery contributions to overall abundance.”  A
  15. “With no fishing and no hatcheries, after 30 years or so, the number of wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin would be roughly the same as the current overall number of wild salmon and steelhead;  that is, it would be substantially smaller than the current total salmon run size.”  A
  16. “Even if all remaining harvest fisheries were eliminated and anadromous hatcheries were mothballed, unless the Snake River migration corridor is restored, all wild Snake River stocks (currently < 3% and < 1% of the 1950s – 1960s and pre-1850 abundances, respectively) will very likely be extirpated within 20 – 30 years.”  A
  17. “After a few decades of zero salmon fishing and zero hatchery releases, and everything else continuing along, the abundance of wild runs would end up being less than the current wild run abundance.”  A
  18. “With wild fish only, chinook, sockeye, and steelhead (and possibly coho) will likely be near extinction or gone from many, if not most areas of the basin, and wild chum and pink salmon runs may continue at or above current levels.”  A
  19. “After several decades without salmon fishing and without hatcheries, the overall net effect in the Basin would be a reduction in the current overall wild-only run size.”  A
  20. “Even with the complete closure of all salmon fishing and all releases from hatcheries, the long-term downward trend in wild salmon abundance would continue without any other changes.”  A
  21. “Even with closing all salmon fishing and eliminating all salmon hatcheries, the current downward trend in wild salmon runs would continue due to environmental degradation and global warming.”  A
  22. “After several decades of ecological adjustment, the resulting aggregate runs of wild salmon (and steelhead) would be less than current runs of the wild component of salmon/steelhead runs and overall run size would, of course, be much lower than it is currently.”  A

B – Predicted wild-only Basin-wide run would be roughly equal to the current wild-only Basin-wide run.   11 (19%)

  1. “The current abundance of salmon produced in the Columbia Basin is mostly influenced by coastal ocean carrying capacity.”  B
  2. “With the total closure of hatcheries and fishing, over the multiple decade perspective, I expect the change in wild run size to be highly variable, but the overall run size (all wild fish) not to be greatly different than current wild run size, and thus much less than the current total (wild and hatchery) run size, given that habitat does not change.”  B
  3. “With no hatchery additions and no fishing, I’m not sure that, even after several decades, there would be much change in wild salmon total numbers in the Basin.”  B
  4. “Over the 20-30 yr. period following the cessation of fishing and the closure of hatcheries, the resulting overall level of Columbia Basin wild salmon and steelhead runs would roughly be the same as current wild runs, recognizing that there is a lot of variation in how individual runs would change.”  B
  5. “After a few decades without fishing or hatchery stocking in the Columbia, the effects on wild salmon abundance, compared to current levels, will be small.”  B
  6. “We will likely not see dramatic changes in wild salmon and steelhead numbers in the Columbia River Basin even if harvest and hatchery production is eliminated, but the number of wild salmon will probably end up slightly higher than it is currently.”  B
  7. Zero change in [wild] adult return rates in the medium to long term.”  B
  8. “. . . I do not see great increases in run sizes.”  B
  9. “I wouldn’t expect a hypothetical scenario of zero harvest and zero hatcheries would lead to much, if any, improvement to the current overall abundance of wild salmonids in the Columbia Basin unless additional factors were also addressed (habitat, hydro, climate change).”  B
  10. “After a few decades of adjusting to the removal of hatchery fish and ceasing fishing (and assuming no other changes),  the resulting change in the number of wild salmon and steelhead would be small, if any.”  B
  11. “If the U.S. Government decides to immediately and permanently (1) eliminate all releases from hatcheries (i.e., close them all forever) and (2) stop all fishing directly targeting salmon and steelhead, then because Snake/Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead face persistent constraints to recovery due to development and operation of the Columbia River hydrosysytem, we would continue to see overall rapid declines (although variable) for salmon and steelhead in the Columbia/Snake River Basin and the overall decline would be more dramatic for hatchery supplemented Snake River fall Chinook and Sockeye.”  B

C – Predicted wild-only Basin-wide run would be greater than the current wild-only run Basin-wide run, but less than the current wild plus hatchery overall run.   15 (26%)

  1. “After several decades, the abundance of wild salmon and steelhead in the Basin would be well below the abundance in the pre-1850’s, but also below current levels (wild and hatchery) of abundance.”   C
  2. “After all the runs adapt to stopping all harvest and closing all hatcheries, the aggregate run size (salmon and steelhead) would average over the long-term roughly 7% of the historical run size (assuming a pre-1850 average of 10 million).”  C
  3. “Without fishing and hatcheries, Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead would increase 10-15% in total abundance (compared to total wild fish abundance now).”  C
  4. “Cessation of harvest and hatchery production will not lead to a resurgence in the abundance of natural-origin (aka, “wild”) salmon/steelhead in the Columbia River Basin, but will result in maybe a doubling (and this could be optimistic) of the current paltry number of wild adult returns — to a number a bit less paltry.”  C
  5. “In the absence of hatcheries and fishing, wild salmon would do better than they currently are, but the resulting wild-only abundance would be somewhat less than the current wild/hatchery abundance.”  C
  6. “For the Columbia River Basin, eliminating all harvest and hatcheries will likely result in wild-only runs being somewhat higher in abundance than their current low level, thus substantially below the current hatchery-wild total run, and far below the pre-1850 total run, but also more genetically diverse, fit and resilient, thus better able to deal with and adapt to stressors such as climate change.”  C
  7. “As for total run abundance in the Basin, given current habitat conditions, I wouldn’t be surprised to see wild stocks replace much of the lost hatchery production, but there would surely be more big Chinook without an ocean fishery.”  C
  8. “Three decades after no salmon/steelhead fishing and no salmon/steelhead hatcheries, there would be substantially fewer salmon and steelhead (wild only) present in the Columbia Basin than are currently present (combined wild and hatchery).”  C
  9. Assuming that only fishing and hatcheries are stopped, but the quality of all other fresh- and saltwater habitats continue on their current trajectories, then there would be about a 10 to 20% increase in natural spawners (wild) in 30 years in the Columbia River Basin.”  C
  10. “With no fishing and no hatcheries, the resulting wild-only salmon run in the Columbia Basin would be about twice the current wild-only run, but the current wild run is only a small fraction of the present (wild/hatchery) run.”  C
  11. “After several decades without fishing and hatcheries, the overall wild fish run size in the Basin would increase, but, without hatchery salmon, this wild-fish only run would be much less than the current hatchery/wild total, and this resulting aggregate wild-only run size also would be lower than the pre-1850s overall salmon abundance in the Basin.”  C
  12. “The resulting wild run only would be 70% of the current adult [wild/hatchery] return.”   C
  13. “. . . 1 to 4 fold increase range seems like a reasonable guesstimate [in wild-only overall run size].”  C
  14. “The sustainable population size for a wild fish only scenario (no fishing) generally would be quite small.  Overall, the total wild Columbia Basin run would eventually settle out at approximately 5% of the pre-1850s run sizes.”  C
  15. “Several decades later, the total run in the Columbia Basin (wild only) would be from 5 times to 10 times the current wild fish only run overall, but less than the current total (wild and hatchery) run.”  C

D – Predicted wild-only Basin-wide run would be roughly equal to the current wild plus hatchery Basin-wide overall run.   7 (12%)

  1. “Without hatcheries and fishing, there would be about the same production as currently exists for combined wild and hatchery fish in the Columbia River Basin.”  D
  2. “Given a few decades to adjust, the wild-only aggregate abundance would increase compared to the present aggregate return of wild/hatchery salmon to the Basin.”  D
  3. “My best guess for the Basin population response is that (after stopping fishing and closing hatcheries) the total number of returning fish (composed entirely of naturally produced adults) would equal or increase slightly over the present total return (composed of mostly hatchery and some naturally produced adults).”  D
  4. “Under the hypothetical scenario of zero hatchery releases, zero salmon harvest, and everything else continuing, after a few decades, I would predict that many (but perhaps not all) salmonid populations (they would be wild only by then)  would level out to roughly 20% of the pre-1850s levels.”  D
  5. “With no fishing and no hatcheries and allowing for several decades for adjustment, the collective run size would be about 1-2 million, which is roughly what the total (hatchery and wild) is currently.”  D
  6. “Without hatchery supplementation, wild fish runs alone would be about a fifth of the historical size, approximately the current level with both wild and hatchery fish.”  D
  7. “After sufficient time for salmon and steelhead runs to adjust to no fishing and the complete elimination of hatchery operations, roughly speaking, total salmon abundance in the Basin would be largely the same, but there likely would be differences in how different species respond.”  D

E – Predicted wild-only Basin-wide run would be greater than the current wild plus hatchery Basin-wide overall run.   3 (5%)

  1. “Eventually, salmon and steelhead runs would return to about 20-30% of their pre-1850s abundance with the now totally wild runs fluctuating between about 2,000,000 to 3,500,000.”  E
  2. The remaining wild salmon and steelhead populations would rebuild to the limit of today’s Basin habitat capacity, which roughly would result in an all-species total run of 50% of historical run size.”  E
  3. The aggregate run size (wild fish only) in the Basin would rebound to approximately 30% of the pre-1850s run size.”  E
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88 thoughts on “What Would Happen to Columbia River Basin Wild Salmon Runs if Hatchery Stocking and Fishing Ended?

  1. I must say that this is a remarkable testament to the disconnection between asserted salmon expertise and reality. It is obvious that wild salmon would make substantial gains when harvest and competition was removed, and it is quite depressing to see so many of those deemed to have expertise in the field unable to see this. Why should the salmon be any different than the striped bass in the Hudson, for example?

    • Of course, we’re aware that the other 2 H’s are problematic in Columbia/Snake R. mainstem habitats (begging for Holistic mgmt.) (Storch et al. 2022).

      Storch, A.J., and 11 coauthors. 2022. A review of potential conservation and fisheries benefits of breaching four dams in the Lower Snake River (Washington, USA). Water Biology and Security [online] 1(2): 100030 (

      Yes, striped bass did increase on the East Coast w/ harvest cutbacks, but that didn’t last once their major prey (Atlantic menhaden) started getting overfished for stomach-upset products. We’ve got to be cognizant of cumulative impacts if we’re to make significant progress on salmon recovery, including human-population growth (that really makes it a “Red Queen”).

      Here on the West Coast, we’ve been seeing the impacts of the 2015 super-drought, progressively over the yrs. from short- to longer-lived salmon spp. (now including Chinook, w/ resultant impacts on Southern Resident orcas).

      Re: George’s concern about interannual-salmon abundance, keep in mind that present trends are greatly affected by hatchery fish in the heavily supplemented Columbia/Snake R. system. Indeed, it’s the reason that we still have an Idaho-sockeye run.

    • The answer is likely similar for why pink and chum salmon were not expected to decline. The biology and ecology of the runs and habitat are not the same as upriver spawning species. All species are not the same.

    • Fisheries for commercial/recreational fishing in the Northeast are not supplemented with hatchery production to the same degree as salmon on the West coast are. Striped bass, cod, and tuna are regulated the most with catch limits, permits, ect, to maintain maximum sustainable yield to allow enough of the population to reproduce before they are harvested, which why using fishing as the control has worked relatively to bring back striped bass populations in several regions of the Northeast, but that does not mean the species is recovered. Additionally, the 2018 assessment showed that population levels were below what they should be and indicate overfishing.

      There are many more symptoms to the problem of why wild salmon returns are low that just hatchery production and fishing like Dr. Lackey described at the end. Yes, you can produce more fish to see return numbers increase, but that only masks the true problems in addition to the other impacts such as available habitat for the different life stages of each salmon species, water temperature increasing, climate change, and the list goes on. It is essential to understand the requirements and needs of a species before you can write a prescription to fix the problem, because the same prescription might not work the same way for all species.

  2. 1) The poll needs a 6th option: “I don’t know.” Or, it could have been done a little differently. For example, an expert would distribute 100 points across the 5 outcomes based on his/her degree of belief in that outcome.
    2) The question needs more specificity or maybe should have had additional questions that addressed more specific outcomes. For example, numerous sub-basins (and sub-sub-basins) in the Columbia River Basin have good freshwater habitat. While cessation of harvest and hatchery production might have a small impact on the overall salmon abundance in Columbia River Basin, it could have much larger and significant positive impacts on abundance in particular sub-basins. Answers to a question regarding that type of outcome would be interesting. There is also a temporal dimension to the question. If we shut down salmon fisheries and hatcheries for 100 years would that not make a difference? See comment on fish and wildlife experts below.
    3) I am curious to know what organizations the experts work for now and for what organizations they have worked for in the past. If they worked for an agency that regulated fisheries or managed hatcheries did that affect their opinion? If they worked for an organization that was anti-fishery and/or anti-hatchery did that affect their opinion?
    4) Fish and wildlife experts are notoriously bad at assessing population-scale problems. Example 1: The recovery goal for wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains was a minimum of 30 breeding pairs (USFWS 1987). That’s a laughably small recovery goal. The estimated current size of the northern Rockies wolf population, including eastern parts of Washington and Oregon is over 3300 individuals, which equates to roughly 280 packs. Clearly, the experts who developed the recovery plan had no idea how the wolf population would respond when humans ceased their relentless persecution of this species. Example 2: The northern spotted owl controversy focused on the preservation of old-growth forest, and so did the recovery plan for this species (circa early 1990s). At the height of the controversy, experts knew that the barred owl posed a threat to the spotted owl, but the barred owl was effectively ignored in the recovery plan and the NW Forest Plan, which served as the recovery plan for spotted owls on federal lands. At present, despite the preservation of millions of acres of old-growth forest on federal lands, the spotted owl population continues to decline and if it goes extinct the barred owl will be the culprit. Thank you experts. Example 3: Fishery “experts” are not very good at explaining variation in the size of annual salmon returns. The average annual returns of adult Chinook (spring, summer, and fall) to the Columbia River Basin as estimated at Bonneville Dam in the 20th century (1938-1999) was approximately 336,000 individuals. The same figure for the 21st century (2000-2017) is 749,000. The largest return size in the 20th century was 508,000 individuals in 1976, the largest in the 21st century was 1,337,000 in 2015; more than 2.5 times larger. How did that happen? I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation.
    5) If you group the outcomes into pessimistic (A & B) and optimistic (C, D, & E), and then run a X2 test on the answer frequencies, you find that you cannot reject the null hypothesis that the expert opinions are the same as randomly chosen opinions (p=0.293). So, while pessimists are in the majority (33 vs. 25), that result may be due to sampling error (violations of statistical assumptions notwithstanding).

  3. Here is what Bob’s proposal would not do. It would not remove the dams that through either absolute blockage or creation of reservoirs has eliminated significant amounts of habitat. I think in the mainstem Columbia more than 90% of the habitat is a reservoir or blocked. There will be no wild production from there. The reservoirs change temperatures which kill fish. This won’t change. The reservoirs contain many predators that will still be there. The reduction in hatchery releases will increase predation on the wild smolts. The pinniped predation will continue unabated; again the loss of hatchery fish switches more impacts to the wilds. The predatory birds will simply take more wild smolts.
    Closure of the salmonid hatcheries and closure of the salmonid-directed fisheries are part of the solution but will not work unless other limiters (available habitat predation, habitat quality) are fixed at the same time.

    • My impression is that some of your conclusions here largely ignore the well-researched differences between ‘wild’ and ‘hatchery’ fish at all phases of the salmon life-cycle. It is well known that hatchery-raised juvenile fish are poorly adapted to their habitat (both fresh and salt water) and are thus much more susceptible to predation and the other hazards in the wild that result in much higher mortality rates. Further, pouring juvenile fish into the marine environment – not just from the Columbia system but all other US, Canadian, Japanese, Russian, Korean hatchery facilities is an uncontrolled experiment in marine carrying capacity. Estimates vary but there could be as many as 10 billion (hatchery) juvenile fish being released annually into the North Pacific. The latest research has begun to show that marine carrying capacity is not, as was once believed, unlimited. We also can’t ignore intra-specific competition between hatchery and wild fish. Policy-wise I believe we need to shift our mentality towards producing salmon (and steelhead) that are ideally suited to their existing and evolving habitat; that means fish that are able to adapt through evolutionary processes to changes in that habitat over time, and fish that are the most resilient to both cataclysmic events and natural variations in ecology. That means wild fish. As long as our policies are shaped around prioritizing ‘fishing for human consumption’ – whether that be sports, commercial or FSC (Indigenous/First Nations) – over creating the conditions for successful natural reproduction of the fittest salmonids through habitat restoration and preservation (as you mention) our human interventions will not only not recover the 96% loss from pre 1850’s levels but will continue to degrade and destroy salmon populations throughout the Pacific Northwest until the loss is 100%. Hard choices are ahead, but I believe the first step is for management priority to be defined as ‘wild salmon recovery’ rather than ‘hatchery production’.

  4. I have been looking at the history of fishing of all kinds in the Great Lakes Basin and note some similarities to what you describe for the Columbia Basin. I perceive a latitudinal circumpolar Great Salmonid Belt, that included the Columbia Basin, the Great Laurentian River Basin, the Baltic Basin, etc. In all of these the ‘welfare’ of wild salmonid taxa could be shown to be a negative function of the abundance of humans in the relevant basins, I posit. In many locales, particular salmonids have been introduced into particular habitats, often to be ranched and/or cultured intensively.

    In Lake Ontario, for example, large quasi-benthic salmonids (Atlantic Salmon, Lake Trout, Lake Whitefish) dominated all fisheries in 1800. By 1900 the fish association was dominated by medium-sized quasi-pelagic salmonids (Lake Herring, Cisco) and large percids (Walleye, Sauger, Blues) with the percids feeding on the introduced Alewife (a mini-Shad). By 1950 benthic Carp, Yellow Perch, and Black Bass thrived in shallow bays and tributaries; Alewife and Smelt thrived in offshore waters. By the 1980s Pacific Salmon were ranched with the small pelagics as their forage. The more riverine tributary basins to Lake Ontario including the Finger Lakes and the Kawartha Lakes had a similar if less dramatic sequence of changes.

    This kind of generalized history might prove useful as climate heating progresses. The circumpolar salmonid belt will shift northward but habitats in deep lakes or in spring-fed waters in moraines may remain habitable for decades to come with artificial help. The overlapping circumpolar percid belt will shift northward as it has been doing for centuries because of generalized abuse of aquatic ecosystems.

  5. It seems that the answers and historical experience suggest that fishing and hatcheries have very little to do with wild salmon abundance. Land use, urbanization, water quality, water quantity, river management, and dams all appear to have a great deal more impact on wild salmon abundance than fishing and hatcheries. These are two variables in a multilinear regression that should the regression be constructed would have very little to do with predicting the wild salmon abundance outcome.

    • I don’t think folks are saying that cessation of fishing and hatcheries have little to do with abundance of wild salmon. Rather the suite of impacts synergistically is killing them off. In my view, there is not one single action that will restore salmon other than the complete removal of humans and their infrastructure. Lacking that, we need to work on all of the “H’s”.

  6. Thanks for the opportunity to review the draft blog. It is certainly an interesting manuscript as it is rather unconventional from a scientific standpoint.

    However, it could easily get misinterpreted. As I see it, the most important word in the document is the word ‘and’. In each instance you link hatcheries with the elimination of salmon fishing. As such, your conclusions are likely correct. That is, the elimination of salmon fishing AND hatchery production are not currently among the major drivers of the low abundance of wild salmon in the Columbia Basin.

    However, that conclusion would not be correct if those two factors were considered separately. That is, if salmon fishing were to be eliminated, the abundance of wild salmon would increase considerably across the range of Pacific salmon (duh). This is particularly true for Chinook salmon originating from the Columbia Basin, and likely Puget Sound. And if hatcheries were eliminated, the abundance of Pacific salmon in the basin (wild and hatchery) would plummet rapidly towards extinction, if all other factors remain the same. Both conclusions could be considered quite obvious.

    However, your thought-experiment explicitly linked ‘no fishing’ with ‘no hatcheries’. Taken together, these factors offset each other, to some degree, so you can correctly conclude they are not major drivers of low abundance. But when separated, the conclusion no longer holds up.

    Nevertheless, it is still difficult for me to link hatcheries with harvest on the Columbia River, or to visualize ‘no harvest’. I realize a lot of ‘ordinary folks’ who don’t deal with these issues on a regular basis likely associate harvest with hatcheries. However, hatcheries are closely aligned with the hydropower dams (as mitigation) while harvest is aligned with Tribal Treaty rights and the rights of States to authorize fishing within their borders.

    Theoretically, we could eliminate hatcheries by eliminating the dams. And the States could eliminate harvest by recreational anglers and commercial (non-Treaty) fishermen. However, the Tribal right to harvest salmon is a ‘reserved right’ that was recognized in the various Treaties. That means the Treaties acknowledged the Tribes had the right to fish for salmon PRIOR to the Treaties, and that right would continue, unchanged, upon approval of the Treaties. That right continues to this day. So the concept of ‘no fishing’ is very difficult to visualize. Even in the highly unlikely event the Treaties are somehow rescinded or revoked, the Tribes would still have the right to harvest salmon, as they do today. And they would most certainly exercise that right.

    My sense is that some folks who were nervous about responding to your thought-experiment were reluctant to acknowledge that harvest, especially Tribal harvest, could cease under any conceivable circumstances. I understand their reluctance.

    But I agree that hatcheries are operated, to a large degree, to facilitate harvest. That is, Pacific salmon are raised and released from Columbia Basin hatcheries based on the interests of the co-managers (States/Tribes), rather than on the specific impacts associated with the dams. But hatcheries remain the primary means of mitigation for the hydropower dams on the Columbia River. So as long as the dams remain on the river, hatcheries will be needed to offset the impacts associated with hydro-power development.

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking experiment.

    • I don’t think there is necessarily a direct “link” as you put it. Yes hatcheries and fishing are to be considered in thought experiment, but to assess population numbers. The the main question is: what would be the overall run size in the Columbia Basin compared to current average runs? This is given that hatcheries and fishing to everyone are closed.

      The statement that hatcheries are closely aligned with hydropower could be misinterpreted and be misleading. There are Tribal hatcheries that are funded through BPA mitigation funds, but this is not true for every hatchery.

      To say that hatcheries can be removed by taking out the dams is another misleading statement. Many hatcheries are fed from sources that do not occupy the same space on a river as a dam like Priest Rapids Hatchery and Wanapum Dam might. The Walla Walla hatchery on the Walla Walla River is not directly next to a dam, while there might be dams or barriers along the river. If the dams go that does not mean hatcheries could or will go with them, they are funded independently with different purposes.

      It’s important to keep in mind too that there is a lot of masking around hatcheries. While they’re often labeled as a tool to aid in recovery, they are often to produce stock for fishing due to the extremely high economic value salmon fishing has and brings in.

      • One needs to look at the funding source for each of the Columbia Basin hatcheries. Most, but not all, are some sort of mitigation funding. The Mitchell Act facilities (mostly below Bonneville) are mitigation for the Federal System (likely mostly BPA) and were sited below Bonneville to maximize survival (and harvest to everybody except the Tribes above Bonne). Others (3 Cowlitz, Westbank, 2 on the Lewis R) are local PUD-funded. The 2 on the lower Snake are funded by the USACOE as mitigation. Thrown into the mix are facilities in the watershed like Yakima, Goldendale, Spokane that are basically trout hatcheries from the Game Department and were there to support trout fisheries. Note that the mitigation hatchery is often not “next” to the dam it mitigates for. I believe that it will be an interesting exercise, for example, to follow through on removal of the 3 lower Snake Dams and then expect USACOE to continue to fund mitigation for non-existent dams. Somebody else could step up, but not the Corps.

      • Rebecca – Thanks for the thoughtful response.

        You have indicated there are Tribal hatcheries that are funded through BPA mitigation funds, but this is not true for every hatchery.

        Which hatcheries are you referring to? I don’t know any hatcheries in the Columbia Basin that release Pacific salmon that are not funded either by the Federal agencies (Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) or by the operators of non-Federal dams (e.g., PUD’s, PGE, Idaho Power, PacifiCorp). All these hatcheries provide mitigation for Federal and non-Federal hydropower development. I recognize there are State and Federal hatcheries outside the Columbia Basin that are not linked to hydropower, particularly on the Oregon and Washington Coasts. Perhaps that is what you were referring to.

        My point was, in the Columbia Basin, hatcheries and hydropower are a ‘package deal’. That is, the dams and the mitigation (hatcheries) are inextricably linked. It is easy to discuss closing hatcheries if they are administratively separate from the dams, which is what Bob has done with his thought-experiment. I was just re-linking them since it is quite misleading to suggest that Columbia Basin salmon hatcheries could close while the dams remain standing, as Bob has done. The dams were built with a specific commitment to provide fish ladders and salmon hatcheries as mitigation for the inevitable damage to Pacific salmon stocks that would occur from construction and operation of the hydropower system.

        But I believe it is worth discussing whether the opposite is true. That is, if a dam is eliminated, should the hatchery that provides mitigation also be eliminated? Perhaps that can be Bob’s next thought-experiment. I mention this because it may be a very real scenario if the Federal government decides to breach the four Lower Snake River dams. If that happens, the future of the Lower Snake River Compensation Plan, and the many hatcheries funded under this program, would be ripe for discussion.

        • Mark, your scenario about what to do w/ the hatcheries is more than a thought expt. now in the Elwha R. The feds did salmon releases above the dams before they were breached, to help jump-start headwater-fish recovery. And the state & local tribe conceded to fish-conservation NGOs not to do hatchery stocking of Chambers Cr. steelhead there, which are simply not locally adapted to that environment. Instead, we’ve seen natural recovery of several salmonid spp. & Pac. lamprey there, as summarized here:

          Sharma, S., and J. Waldman. 2021. Potential solar replacement of hydroelectricity to reopen rivers: Maine as a case example. Fisheries 46: 383-390 (cf.

        • Hi there Marky,

          Apologies for the late reply. The hatchery I was referring to owned by the Tribe is in Walla Walla. Many state and federal hatcheries are funded through capitol funds. In Washington this source comes from bond sales.

          BPA funded hatcheries typically come from capital funds where are more often than not from borrowed money (loans).

  7. Very interesting to read the final version and to read the comments. It would be great for a part II or follow up blog on the top 4/5 ways to mitigate salmon recovery other than hatcheries and fishing to illustrate the complexity of the problem and that there’s not just one simple answer. Thanks again


    • Interesting question. It is my belief that Columbia watershed (and certainly the mainstem) can never be “recovered” as long as the dams are in place. Period. Too much habitat is blocked and the accessible reservoirs are not salmon habitat. That’s, to me, the starting point. If the decision is to leave dams in then the question becomes where could wild salmon sustainably produce a run? What sort or survival would you get through the hydro system? What survival would you get past the avian and aquatic (introduced fish, pinnipeds) predation? Easily modeled. I think that we know what the answers are we just are societally unwilling to implement them.

  8. Very thought provoking article. Many good comments from all the experts. The take home message is that neither hatcheries or eliminating fishing will fix the problem of bringing back wild salmon to pre-white man numbers.

    I think it is impossible to meet your object of 30% recovery, because society is not willing to sacrifice all that would be needed to make this happen.

    I can not see the conditions for “wild salmon” improving to dramatically increase numbers over present levels. The real challenge will be to keep wild salmon numbers at the present level with the many challenges that experts identified coming in the future.

    Without some “magic pill” future numbers of wild salmon will likely decline no matter what draconian measures are applied.

    If we can keep total salmon numbers (wild plus hatchery) at or near present levels this will be a major accomplishment.

    There are just too many challenges facing salmon in the future.

    • I generally agree with you Lloyd. There are so many interdependent factors that isolating only hatcheries and harvest as a package can’t be assessed objectively, but having experts weight in was insightful as a thought experiment. The ‘societal sacrifice’ point is important. None of the harvest interest groups have any incentive to ‘give up’ their piece of the salmon ‘pie’ and replace it with collective efforts towards habitat restoration that would necessarily precede and enable wild salmon recovery.
      I would also add that the ‘4H’ model of salmon management I think does a disservice to future generations. It is not that the 4H’s are not important, but framing salmon management around the 4H model and teaching it to baby salmon managers confines thinking to those particular elements. This results in minimizing the interplay between the elements and the policy implications that result from that interplay. In my view, we need to build and educate ‘systems’ thinkers and make interventions at the systems level rather than treating the ‘symptoms’ at the 4H level and below. 4H is simplifying a complex problem and our ‘solutions’ thus far have been a dismal failure as a result. We don’t even have the proper language yet (as Norton points out in his ‘Sustainability’ book) to deal with managing at the systems level towards a better future. More of the same is not going to cut it.

      • Let me respond to 2 comments by D. Miller:

        1. No, we don’t have to write off the Columbia R. basin, b/c now WA, as well as OR & ID, are interested in lower Snake R. breaching. And yes, higher salmon escapements can better feed inland biota, as well as saltwater spp. like orcas, via ecosystem mgmt.

        2. Re: the 4 H’s, I think that it’s a good mgmt. model that politicians can “wrap their heads around”, but we do need to give more consideration to the interdependencies of these groups of environmental constraints. Yes, hatcheries have often been used as “mitigation” for hydropower dams, but that interdependency is problematic as others have noted. And restoring headwater habitats gets more “bang for the buck” if fish barriers like dams & culverts are dealt w/. And brood-stocking hatchery production makes more sense than stocking Chambers Cr. steelhead all over WA. Harvesting that’s density-dependent is more likely to be sustainable than MSY fisheries:

        Vadas, R.L. Jr. 1990. The importance of omnivory and predator regulation of prey in freshwater fish assemblages of North America. Environmental Biology of Fishes 27: 285-302 (cf.

  9. Here are the major implications of the results of the survey from my perspective:

    (1) We have to reprogram a lot of our wild and hatchery fish expectations to account for anticipating a large increase of the human population (and associated development) and a changing climate for at least the next century. Both of these factors will stress cold water fish populations over anything we have seen so far. We should relocate and resize and shift species for many of our hatchery programs to provide fisheries in abundances and manners that do not preclude sustaining wild fish survival. We have inherited a hatchery program shaped by the past, rather than shaped by future objectives and constraints. We can use hatcheries to provide tribal, commercial, and sport fisheries but not in the same time/location pattern we have inherited from the past. This will be traumatic for fishers but must be done.

    (2) We may never recover all depleted wild stocks but we should try to sustain all the genetic diversity we still have, and recover what we can. We won’t accomplish this by doing lots of small stuff, no matter how good that feels and how politically acceptable it is. We have to capitalize now on the big potential survival enhancements that are possible (dam removal/operational changes, recolonizing wild populations above dams with passage survival options feasible, major cold water sources protected and enhanced, manage dams to store and release cold water for river temperatures rather than for power/irrigation, reestablishing sockeye into the upper Columbia into Canada- a huge potential!, and system restructuring to prioritize wild salmonids sustainability.

    These changes would be politically difficult… it is so much more politically feasible to throw rocks and logs in the streams…but the changes have to be at a scale and on a schedule that are of a magnitude of survival improvements matched to the size of the coming problems.

    These changes are political decisions and have to be informed by a political discussion of options, informed by scientific evaluation of feasibility. We will make mistakes so we have to evaluate and modify as we go on a regional and continental scale. It is an open question as to whether we as a society are capable of such a decision and execution.

    The current discussion of the potential removal of the Snake River Dams is an example of the kind of scientific analysis and political decision exercise that will be required, but on a much larger scale. But to approach the problem of salmonids conservation as we have in the past is the same as getting ready to let them go.

    We just don’t want to admit it! There is still lead time, but not much. There is still a choice.

    • Keep in mind that sockeye do still get into BC via the Okanogan/Okanagan R., albeit warming temperatures there hurt the runs in some yrs. I’d like to see better riparian restoration there.

      Re: the upper Columbia R. mainstem, various anadromous-fish spp. used to spawn & rear, notably summer Chinook (“hogs”), white sturgeon, & Pac. lamprey that all nearly made it to the Canadian headwaters.

  10. In your introductory piece that you state “One important role [of scientists/science] is providing expert judgment about complex scientific questions that are beyond the capability of the traditional scientific method.” I assume you mean by the term “traditional scientific method” a conventional Popperian experimental approach. This traditional methodology has little relevance for most real-world resource management issues as you have often stated; at least, for answering the entire big policy questions. Science still has a key role in informing these answers but not in the way suggested by your thought experiment. One might infer that your “thought experiment” is a good alternative to the conventional “scientific” approach. I do not agree. I think another approach is far preferred.

    In my view, the relevant question is how to make the best use of the vast knowledge and experience within the scientific community (albeit often skewed by employment prospects, opinion leaders like yourself, political correctness and other biases). Your thought experiment effectively enhances these biases and dampens critical thinking and making the best use of the available scientific knowledge and experience.

    So what is the alternative? As you always articulate, and as is clear from the comments in this blog, there is great divergence in expert opinion and real-world ecosystems are complex and dynamic. At a scientific level, most of our understanding of these systems is at a fine-grain scale (spatially and temporally). The conventional scientific approach dictates thus. So how best to use this knowledge to understand large-scale systems operating over long time scales?

    In my view, systems modelling is the most reliable alternative we have available to us. But systems modelling often has a bad name with many Popperian scientists as being untestable, a fair criticism but not one that eliminates their value. Until a better alternative is available, this criticism leads to strategies to test as many of the underlying functions in such models as is possible but not to outright rejection of the approach.

    The relevance of my comment in the context of your thought experiment is this. You have canvassed an enormous body of knowledge but has this body of knowledge been exploited in the most valuable way to inform the policy question being posed? I would say definitely not.

    I think anonymity is essential due to political/social influences regarding this issue. However, the answers obtained do not provide the opportunity for learning and future improvement, let alone informed policy decisions. I would be most interested to see what the “answer of the model” would be to your question if each of the respondents had instead, provided their opinions on key model relationships rather than on the overall most likely model outcome. I suspect it might be quite different than what you have reported and definitely, it would provide much more insight and potential for learning.

    An example of what I am proposing would be to ask each expert this type of question. What is the likely current average, and interannual variation in, say, recruitment to the sea-run population of wild salmon from a given section of the watershed? What is the likely change in recruitment if hatchery fish are planted at the following rates annually in this section of the watershed? As you know, I make no claims about being a fishery scientist, let alone an expert on Columbia River fisheries. For that reason, this question may be way off base but I think you get the gist of what I am suggesting.

    Obviously, getting the questions right is a key first step; something I would first canvas the experts about. Also, it is important to request ranges and not just point estimates. As well, producing this type of information takes more than an email requesting a response to a couple of questions. But is your “thought experiment” helpful to address the policy question? I would say not. Indeed, one could argue the opposite.

    I am sure that there have been previous attempts to “model” the Columbia River fishery but often these efforts are dismissed as being too complicated, too esoteric and hypothetical, too vulnerable to biases and having too wide a range of possible outcomes to make them useful for policy decisions. For me that is like those that claimed that computers could never defeated a Grand Champion in chess.

    Today that question is moot. Heck, AlphaGO defeated the GO Grand Champion 3 out of 5 games and GO is a lot more complicated than chess ( Over time, these systems greatly exceed the capability of even the most expert of experts.

    This is not, in any way, to claim that I am offering a brilliant insight. Systems modelling has been around a long time. However, what is changing is the ability to produce highly complex systems that are self-correcting over time just like AlphaGO. With this capability, we need to figure out the best way to integrate human knowledge and experience with the unmatched power of computers and AI. Asking for expert opinions is like putting each of your experts up against AlphaGO. Good luck.

    Given this is YOUR blog and I know you do not like sugar-coating, I have been rather blunt, and perhaps even disrespectful, in my comments but my intentions are honourable 🙂

    • Ed, the thought experiment provides a testable hypothesis that changing just 2 of the 4 H’s won’t have a major effect on total-salmon abundance. So it does qualify as a scientific endeavor, as Einstein was famous for. What does this tell us? We need to think more holistically. Lackey’s essay is a wake-up call for the importance of cumulative impacts, something that I statistically tested while in CA:

      Vadas, R.L. Jr. 2003. Ecohydrologic and macrohabitat assessment of California coastal and bay streams: southern limiting factors for imperiled aquatic vertebrates (abstract). Page 20 in A. Brinson and seven coeditors. Abstracts for the International IFIM Users’ Workshop. Colorado State University, Office of Conference Services. Fort Collins, CO (

      But yes, systems modeling would be a useful next step, as scientific progress works incrementally ’til major breakthroughs are made. I.e., today’s science is more of a Kuhnian than Popperian approach:

      Vadas, R.L. Jr. 1994. The anatomy of an ecological controversy: honey bee searching
      behavior. Oikos 69: 158-166 (

      And Phyllis, the ESA is about ecosystem protection, not only for salmon but piscivorous orcas & even us. That monumental law has recovered spp. like raptors (e.g., bald eagles), wolves, & the snail darter, which many people enjoy seeing (or at least knowing is out there) for a better quality of life. So it’s a “win-win”, & do keep in mind that many tribes are promoting wild-salmon recovery thru co-management in WA.

    • I agree that systems modelling is a useful tool, but it needs to be combined with (interdisciplinary) systems thinking with a capital S. Big S science can help to determine the right questions to ask going forward, but policy decisions obviously require much more than just the science. I would argue that the science, and there has probably been more science on Pacific Salmon than almost every other species combined, has largely failed us to this point. And when I say ‘us’ I mean those of us that are hoping that salmon will be around for many future generations. Yes, we have discovered many things about salmon, but the choices we’ve made on what to do with the science and how to act to stop the decline of salmon have not worked. So we are either asking the wrong questions, carrying out the wrong experiments, or making the wrong choices with the results of those first two items – or some combination of all three. I would simplify the question down to something like this:

      1. Should we (as a society) prioritize wild salmon recovery as a policy objective?

      If the answer to this question is ‘yes’ then that sets a course much different from the one we are currently following, but at least by answering it we can focus the scientific analysis on what that means from a policy perspective. There are some other questions we need answered at the ‘systems’ level, but I doubt the politicians and other high level decision makers have the courage to actually drive the stake(s) in the ground that we need to advance the salmon-saving cause in a meaningful way. And so we are left with the status quo – declining populations of salmon, apportioning harvest between the three groups, and arguments about which of the 4 H’s we can tweak to appease as many people as possible – salmon be damned. (pun intended)

  11. It seems to me that the scientists most knowledgable about the realistic future of salmon in the Columbia Basin think that wild salmon are on their way out unless some really big changes take place: take out the mainstem and other dams, drastically reduce or eliminate irrigation, close the energy-sucking server farms in the Basin, move people out of the region or at least concentrate them in a few urban areas, and basically reduce the overall human footprint in the Pacific Northwest substantially. Except for some symbolic changes, these transformations are not going to happen if everyday people have anything to say about it. What will not make much difference is stopping fishing and closing hatcheries. We can provide salmon fishing with hatcheries and it is much cheaper than trying to bring back 1850!

    So, why not bite the bullet and provide the Basin for fishing with stocking from hatcheries? It certainly would save the taxpayers and electricity ratepayers a bundle — and it would keep the tribes and nearly all fishermen happy. Given a warming climate and all the non-native fish doing great in the Basin, the days of substantial wild salmon runs are gone. Why keep spending the billions and end up with the same result? If those purists who want wild fish, go to Alaska or the Russian Far East.

    If ESA stands in the way, change it.

    • The question that was put to the experts was “Approximately how many wild salmon and steelhead would the Basin support without salmon fishing and without hatchery releases, and how would that abundance compare to the past several decades and the run levels of the mid-1800s?” Your answer to this question apparently is zero but that is certainly not a consensus view.

      I am the last one to challenge the opinion you or anyone else may have given. I can only go on the opinions given by the experts. However, the diversity of their opinions cries out for the approach I have suggested.

      You state “So, why not bite the bullet and provide the Basin for fishing with stocking from hatcheries?” The answer is simple; controversial decisions in democracies such as ours generally require solid technical support. But because of all the political and social spinoffs, the technical experts keep their heads down or get a job at a university or an advocacy group :-0 Yes, if we lived in a benevolent dictatorship, a decision by fiat might be made but that is not the situation. Even then I would argue it would not be a good decision and not at all from a technical perspective. Ultimately, these are not technical issues.

      Given this reality, what is the best path forward? Professor Lackey has conducted his thought experiment. I see weaknesses in this approach and suggested an alternative. Investing in this alternative or even yet another public consultation program is the price one has to pay in a democratic society.

      BTW, I have to draw note to you choice of words. “It seems to me that the scientists most knowledgeable about the realistic future of salmon” seems somewhat controversial in itself. Who is qualified as the “most knowledgeable”? Who assigns this qualification? I suspect that there would not be consensus on this matter. As well, making broad brush conclusions on a diverse fishery in a huge watershed without the type of detailed integrated systems analysis I am suggesting is dangerous. Watch the AlphaGO video and see how the Korean GO World Champion changed his overly confident and strident opinion of AlphaGO over the course of the match. It is not hard for me to imagine instead “the most knowledgeable expert” having a similar experience when matched up against “AlphaFish”. If things are obvious as you claim, why the controversy?

      • The devil is in the details. I agree that as long as the dams are in, plus irrigation, levees, and who knows what else that restoration of the Columbia River watershed to pre-1850s levels of wild salmon production is impossible. Realistically, because of changes in water temperature, flow rates, ideal habitat for predators in the reservoirs, and so on that putting migratory fish above dams is an expensive process. To some extent that is why the original Mitchell Act hatcheries were sited low in the watershed. This fish survived well and provided great fisheries. In the ocean and lower river. The folks who lost fish due to the dams (the up-river tribes and up-river residents) got shorted. If we are going to provide hatchery fish (or even wild) I think we need to explicitly state up front who gets to catch them.

  12. As I read through What Would Happen to Columbia River Basin Wild Salmon Runs if Hatchery Stocking and Fishing Ended? « Robert T. Lackey

    ….I was moved to share evidence that almost certainly will give readers reason to modify their thoughts concerning climate futures that are based on IPCC reports and climate models that (wrongly) assume CO2 is a primary climate driver…. as Dr. Lackey referred to a November 18, 2018 Northwest Power and Conservation article… quoting Erik Pytlack as follows:

    “What is more concerning is that the last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were this high was 3 million years ago, and at that time sea levels were 60-80 feet higher.” He said the observed warming can only be explained by models that include atmospheric carbon dioxide increases.
    Do watch Dr. Happer’s 37-minute lecture to assure yourself that we are presently at a historic low as concerns atmospheric CO2 concentration …..and that there is no climate emergency ….. and that EVEN doubling current atmospheric levels of Carbon Dioxide, Methane and Nitrous Oxide will have miniscule and insignificant effects on the global climate…

  13. Phyllis could have written my response verbatim. If population growth is the root cause of salmon decline in the CR Basin, and the hierarchy of core societal values places salmon restoration near the bottom of the ladder, there is no solution.
    Those upper CR stocks impacted by the 4 LSRD’s have a SAR below the threshold needed just to maintain current population levels, and that’s in light of all the mitigation presently executed. So, without dam breaching, they are headed to extinction.
    The mid and lower CR stocks are fairing a bit better and at present returns could maintain (but not restore) their population abundance if nothing gets worse.
    There is merit in Phyllis’ suggestion to cut our losses and focus on total wild plus hatchery abundance for harvest rather than wild only restoration. And, I don’t know this to be true, but it’s credible BPA and the USACE would agree. That would simplify their mitigation obligations.
    The obstacle of course is the ESA and NOAA’s obligations under that. In response, therefore, the fisheries’ arm of NOAA (NMFS) drafts and forwards to agency managers HGMP’s that must be followed, and those constrain hatchery production based on the risk factor of pHOS. I believe that’s our reality, but like Jim Martin accurately stated, that’s managing the resource based on the past rather than present societal demands and ecological realities.

  14. After reading most of the above comments, this all seems to be another example of our collective inability to come to grips with the cold, hard facts for the future of wild salmon in the lower 48. As many have said over the years, are we (the experts) misleading the public on the likelihood of successful wild salmon recovery even with the billions spent? Didn’t we just have this conversation in a previous blog?

    The public will not tolerate a return of the big floods in the Columbia River Basin. Nor will the public accept policies that reduce human population growth in the region. After watching the current power fiasco in California, the public will not allow the loss of baseload power sources (i.e., the hydro system in our case). Most fishermen don’t care if the salmon they catch started life in a hatchery or a stream. And, if it weren’t for those salmon and steelhead hatcheries, there would not be any salmon fishing in this region! If the public and various interest groups do not want salmon fishing, fine; close the hatcheries. If people collectively wish to provide substantial salmon fishing, then deal with reality.

    • Yes but how would the perspective change from the public with this reality? Many hatcheries are funded with the label of mitigation for recovery but really are making fish because of the economic value that fisherman bring to many states and cities as tourism. Many people view the salmon they catch as a good thing, so would the value of salmon decrease and become irrelevant potentially if the fish they are catching are like ponds stocked with bass?

    • Well Peter, many of us are observing climate change in our research, e.g., the rather-steady decline of an adfluvial coastal cutthroat run as lake dry-outs have become more common for my Olympic Peninsula study. But we’re trying to recovery the run via reed canarygrass control, as this invasive plant’s abundance has gone in the opposite direction:

      Vadas, R. 2019. Long-term population response of Coastal Cutthroat Trout to environmental fluctuations in a temperate rainforest stream: hydrology, temperature, and invasive weeds and other biotic factors (oral presentation). Page 32 in American Fisheries Society, Washington-British Columbia Chapter (ed.). Feast and Famine from the Headwaters to the Sea: 2019 Annual General Meeting. Bremerton, WA ( 04/WA-BC-Chapter-AFS-2019-Meeting-Abstracts.pdf &

      Vadas, R.L. Jr., H.A. Beecher, S.N. Boessow, and J.H. Kohr. 2016. Coastal Cutthroat Trout redd counts impacted by natural water supply variations. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 36: 900-912 (cf.

      So climate-change mgmt. will be all about adaptive mgmt., to experimentally test if we can make things right. After all, hypothesis testing is fundamental to sci. progress, not to mention human persistence.

      And Phyllis, it’s dangerous to think of yourself as “everybody’s” spokesperson, but we do know your opinion. A lot of progress has been made to improve dam spills, build more fish-friendly turbines, etc. But antiquated dams like the 4 in the lower Snake R. don’t produce much energy & can be easily replaced by wind power, so let’s do it.

      Finally, y’all are getting me to wax existentialism. If we must let wild salmon & So. Resident orcas go, we may also have to let us humans go to, as we increasingly battle vs. climate-change disasters, infectious diseases that remain lethal via density dependence &/or behavioral maladaptation (Ewald 1983), etc. I think that we’re starting to see the endpt. of human existence, just like we all know that we’re individually mortal. But that doesn’t mean giving up, but rather trying to improve ourselves to live as long & healthy as we can; OR NOT!

      Ewald, P.W. 1983. Host-parasite relations, vectors, and the evolution of disease severity. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 14: 465-485.

      • Yes, Robert & Peter – living in SW Alaska, I see the impacts of climate change on a regular basis. Knowing how short people’s attention spans are (this one-minute video may be too long!), and how the average person gets overwhelmed with technical articles, I tried to demonstrate visually what it is that we are experiencing in the so-called far north. Most years over the past decade, we’ve been averaging five or more “meltdowns” a winter. My definition of a meltdown is an extended warm spell that causes standing water to form where normally ice or snow would be. Of special note is that Kodiak Island hit 67-degrees in late December – at the same time we were experiencing one of our meltdowns. There have been times in the dead of winter where Aniak, where I live, was warmer than Phoenix, AZ and or Atlanta, GA.

  15. A) Constraints: “I use the definition: “Any salmon spawned naturally and whose parents spawned naturally.”

    B) the Question: “So . . . the question . . . after 20-30 years or so of (1) zero hatchery releases; and (2) zero targeted fishing . . . roughly what would be the overall run size in the Columbia Basin compared to current average runs?”

    C) Assumptions: 1) All fishing for salmon will cease, 2) All hatchery operations will cease, 3) Primary dams will remain in place, 4) A few more dams on tributaries will be removed, 5) Climate will continue to change, 6) Human population growth will continue, and 7) Watershed restoration efforts will slowly increase during the period.

    D) Outcome: Given your definition of wild fish, all salmon in the watershed will be wild salmon and, although I am not an expert on the Columbia River, I would expect the run size to increase slightly. I base my “best guess” on the following:

    a. Cessation of fishing would release the downward pressure on stocks applied by fishery managers who respond to demands for expanded fishing opportunities by continuously lowering escapement goals.
    b. Expanding watershed restoration will result in incremental improvements in run size.
    c. Taken together, the benefits of a and b above would slightly offset the downward pressure on stocks brought about by human population growth and climate change.

    • Good logic that bodes some optimism, Walter, but Dr. Bob Lackey’s question was to simply assume that ONLY harvesting & hatchery activities would change. It’s not so optimistic when things like human-population growth (& thus climate change) worsen.

    • I would add that natural spawning would restore historical nutrient transfer mechanisms from salmon carcasses distributed throughout the river system that would increase watershed productivity and biomass. This would restore natural function and productivity of vital bacteria and invertebrates that would ensure the success of future generations of salmonids. The impacts of hatcheries go well beyond production/harvest and competition with wild populations, they are system wide and cumulative as others have mentioned. This of course does not account for the loss of habitat due to dams and human population growth, which would have to be sorted if we are to move towards wild spawning again.

      • Thx for your ecosystem-based thoughts for both freshwater & oceanic habitats, D. Miller. A big problem is that different user grps. like to blame other user grps. (& H’s) for salmon declines, but we’ve got to consider ‘em all tog. A few decades ago, envir. mgrs. didn’t even have oceanic conditions on their radar ‘til this seminal book was published:

        Pearcy, W.G. 1992. Ocean ecology of North Pacific salmonids. University of Washington Press. Seattle, WA. 179 pp.

        Since then, the opportunists have used the ocean as an excuse not to deal w/ the 4 H’s. I.e., such business-biased downplaying of inshore (freshwater/estuarine and upland/riparian) factors on salmon abundance, relative to oceanic impacts (Storch et al., 2022), has slowed discussions down of dam-breaching mgmt. Again, I emphasize that we need Holistic thinking. And a fairer way to recover salmon is thru a “share-the-pain” strategy that deals w/ all 4 H’s.

  16. Commenting from California, stopping fishing and shutting down hatcheries wouldn’t help Central Valley salmon stocks much, if at all. What’s harming them are water management policies that often overheat rivers during egg incubation and reduce spring outflow (spill as you folks to the north say) to the point where juveniles can’t safely and quickly get downstream to the ocean. In addition, big fluctuations in dam releases on the upper Sacramento River commonly dewater the redds of fall run chinook, leaving eggs high and dry. Fix these problems and we could then have a conversation about other less important stressors.

    • Yes John, instream flows & water temperatures are big problems in the Central Valley catchment. Indeed, formerly headwater runs of Chinook there now have to spawn in warming tailwaters given climate change; cold-hypoliminial releases are now harder to come by. Better to provide fish passage or dam breaching, to get the salmon back to their colder headwaters. Indeed, 1 of the reasons that bull trout was extirpated there was b/c they lost their supply of Chinook prey after dam-bldg.

      • And I bet the decline of summer and fall steelhead throughout the Pacific Northwest can be tied directly to the reductions in salmon spawning naturally. Hatcheries are taking all the ‘extra’ eggs that would otherwise provide food for cutthroat trout, bull trout and steelhead from mid Aug to end Nov.

        • Up in AK they were monitoring a small stream. Had a rack so they counted the fish. At the time AK managed coho on a 60% exploitation rate. During monitoring the Pink Salmon escapement exploded. When there were no Pinks spawning the coho catch was about 1,000. When the Pinks put about 1.8 or so kg/sq m (at summer low flow) onto the gravel the harvest was 5-8000. There is similar data from some streams in WA. We know that, as the late Jeff Cederholm said “salmon are habitat” that significant increases in spawners increases the runs of species that rear in the stream.

          • Yes indeed, Hal. In some sense, protecting marine-derived nutrients (temporally) is akin to marine-reserve (spatial) protection, as future production is promoted via “spillover” effects. Harvest reduction is certainly how striped bass recovered on the East Coast, despite pollution (as predicted by Goodyear [1985]) ‘til menhaden-prey declines got in the way. Stripers are subject to the 4 H’s, too.

            We’ve got to get out of our “comfortable rut” & switch the paradigm towards true ecosystem mgmt. on the West Coast. BTW, dam-breaching mgmt. back east has benefited non-salmonid, diadromous spp. (e.g., stripers & alocids, which have non-adhesive, pelagic eggs that reduce sedimentation problems) more than Atlantic salmon, which has more-complex limiting factors.

            Goodyear, C.P. 1985. Toxic materials, fishing, and environmental variation:
            simulated effects on striped bass population trends. Transactions of the
            American Fisheries Society 114: 107-113 (cf.

  17. The big unknown for me in trying to answer this questions is – over what time period? Human-induced climate and other environmental changes are going to be big overall negative players, perhaps (likely) overriding negative effects of hatchery and overfishing. What humans do about greenhouse gasses is going to factor largely into mostly negative changes to salmon habitat in all their life history phases. The planet is going to continue to warm for decades, even in the best case scenario.

  18. The only way we can reduce our carbon footprint, the reason for accelerated global warming and climate change, is to discover a way to make reduction profitable. If in fact we have slipped over the edge of recovery, mitigation efforts will have little consequence, once ocean acidification tips over. The moral question then becomes one of necessity regardless of the outcome. Knowing our future doesn’t mean that we have to accept it, that is not an option. We must understand that necessity is the mother of invention, and hold onto that concept with all out might.

  19. Dr. Lackey’s survey and resulting article is an interesting approach to the issue of salmon decline in the PNW. He asks experts to weigh in the question of benefit to wild fish if fishing and hatcheries are eliminated. Most experts agreed that such elimination would not increase wild fish abundance. The two films, Artifishal and Benefishal, focus on hatcheries as the issue (not fishing which is clearly considered a benefit to both sides). The film Artifishal approaches hatcheries as an ecological issue. Benefishal, a film opposing the views of Artifishal, approaches hatcheries as an economic issue. Neither film addresses dams as the major driver of decline although Benefishal says that dams are here to stay and that we must address reality with hatcheries. I thought that both films stated their positions well and accurately, given their approach. However, if society continues with its current priorities and decisions, it seems to me that we will eventually have a situation of supporting a completely artificial system with no wild fish remaining. I thought it ironic that removal of dams in the Elwha and Klamath rivers resulted in hatcheries being built or continued post-dam removal. Truly a missed opportunity to ask and answer the question “Does dam removal increase wild salmon abundance?”.

    • I agree w/ James that we need innovative solutions now, not climate-change denial that’s merely a defense mechanism for Big Petro & the insecurities of the scientifically challenged.

      Jim, hatcheries aren’t the focus of Elwha R. b/c fish-conservation NGOs opposed steelhead stocking from a faraway hatchery for a crk. that’s very different from the Elwha. Adult salmon were stocked above the dams before their breaching, so that the young would be imprinted to come back there to spawn, which to me is a good use of supplementation. Recovery since then has been natural.

      • One of the factors about the Elwha and its dam removal is that the watershed is about as protected as one can get. Not logged (it’s a National park), not heavily leveed so people can live next to it, not highly diverted for agriculture, municipal, manufacturing, don’t think it has a big wastewater treatment plant, has a reasonably intact and (now)_ recovering estuary. If wild anadromous salmonid recovery doesn’t work there, it won’t work anywhere in the US. Most of the rest of salmon recovery is being tried in watersheds with a variety of salmon unfriendly activities going on. I think that many of the comments here point out the complexity of the problem and (probably) the unwillingness of society to address those issues except in watersheds where there is little need to change society.

        • Yah Hal, the middle/upper Snake R. is likewise relatively protected & still has cold water, given riparian protection & that the water-storage dams there have hypolimnial releases. But the lower Snake R. merely has run-of-the-river dams that cause heating & velocity-reduction problems for salmonid migrations (Storch et al. 2022). So dam type matters for fisheries impacts.

          I certainly hope that the Klamath R. dam-breaching effort follows the Elwha R. model, Jim. There was pushback on too much hatchery stocking & premature fishing there, as we wanted it to be a true expt. for dam-restoration recovery. Back in 2001 (as my small contribution), I suggested that they breach the lower Elwha dam 1st & use the upper (Glines Cyn.) dam for sediment flushing, which they commissioned a modeling study for & implemented for freshwater & estuarine habitat benefits. Hopefully, that happens in the Klamath, too.

  20. Wild salmon are an indicator species of ‘system health’. The problem I have is that hatcheries falsely promote an artificial abundance particularly in mixed-stock “fisheries”. The true consequences of our human destruction of habitat are not known to the general public because they are masked and mitigated by hatchery production. Most people don’t know the difference between a hatchery and wild salmon. But the loss of wild salmon populations is not just from competition, displacement, disease etc. from hatchery fish, it is due to the overall loss of nutrient transfer and watershed biodiversity that is lost when a wild salmon population is replaced with hatchery produced artificial ‘abundance’. We are essentially replacing a natural functioning ecosystem with a fish farm that is focused on harvest. If that’s the choice society makes due to the importance of harvest on economic and social ‘good’ then so be it. But if we truly want the measure of ecosystem health, resilience in the face of climate change, knowledge of what the real human impacts on habitat are, and to be able to answer honestly when asked ‘what happened to the salmon?’ by our kids and grand kids, the start point ought to be a return to the most natural state possible. And this would mean letting systems, like the Columbia, that can’t be returned to their natural state, go void of both wild and hatchery salmon, because those hatchery fish don’t just compete with wild fish from the Columbia once they go to sea. So we would see the true consequences of what we’ve done, and we could focus all that effort and money and time towards places – perhaps the Elwha or Klamath, that might have a fighting chance to restore wild salmon abundance.
    On the harvest front, it has long been my view that total harvest, particularly from sport fishing, is grossly underestimated. TAC and MSY management ignores the natural overabundance, leaving runs managed this way with no natural excess to ‘feed’ the system. Countries like New Zealand and Norway have realized these practices are not viable in the long run. Not accounting for and managing excesses leaves only ‘just enough’ in a perfect scenario. A perfect scenario that never materializes. And the downward trend continues until salmon will be ‘managed to extinction’ on the West coast just as the Atlantic salmon and cod were on the East Coast. Some have suggested a total moratorium on salmon harvest as a stop-gap measure. In my opinion it would be worth a 3-salmon-generation ‘test’ to see what happens if we allow no harvest and let all fish spawn naturally where they are able. Although such a ‘test case’ would never be accepted by the politicians, it would be interesting to see how resilient the salmon really are at this point.

  21. As you’ve (Bob Lackey) so plainly demonstrated, the human population directly impacting Columbia basin anadromous salmonids is not going to do anything but increase. Clearly, there will not be less pressure on fish habitat, even from a quantity perspective, let alone quality. Compound that with climate change influences we are experiencing from the north central Pacific to southern Idaho, and a growing imbalance of the (cultured) salmonid species composition in the ocean rearing environment and what is it that supports the notion salmon and steelhead abundance can be sustained with or without hatcheries? How much are people willing to pay to sustain fish stocks that are increasingly less sustainable for all those reasons? I’m reminded of drug addiction.

    The biological issues are relatively straightforward in my opinion. Shutting off the hatchery tap is likely to sustain and possibly even marginally improve the status of a small number of stocks not already irreversibly influenced by generations of hatchery intervention but only if the habitat issues do not continue to worsen. What are the prospects for that? Politically it doesn’t seem likely or possible to get past the economic arguments commonly applied by those who care not to acknowledge any difference between wild and hatchery now or at any future time.

    I see BC as offering some experience worth noting. In the Fraser system, we have almost every wild chinook stock that has been assessed by Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (I believe it’s 13 of 14 that have been assessed to date) is recommended for listing under our Species at Risk Act. Not one has been so designated. Instead, we’re spending millions of dollars on poorly designed and implemented fish culture programs that show no promise of being anything more than political window dressing and job creation for local indigenous people. It’s even more absurd for Interior Fraser steelhead (primarily Thompson and Chilcotin) that have been assessed by COSEWIC twice and twice recommended for listing under SARA. Silence. Not even a hatchery “solution” has surfaced thus far. The endangered steelhead have been closed to angling for 5 or 6 years now, with no detectable influence on spawning populations. It doesn’t help that indigenous fisheries continue, legally sanctioned or otherwise. Therein rests a major difference between Canada and the US. You have court decisions and endangered species legislation that are relatively black and white. We have policy decisions that, at best, pay lip service to science.

    The most ill-defined term “reconciliation” has become our blank cheque for government to do whatever it deems appropriate to cater to indigenous peoples’ interest in fish and fisheries. The masses in urban areas that control election outcomes go with the government agenda regardless of what science ever makes it to their iPhones.

    The Thompson steelhead scenario is a good example of what happens when angling is terminated. When the angler population is eliminated, there is no one left to advocate for the conservation of fish or their habitat. Vancouver Island steelhead is another prime example. The angling closures began in the mid-90s for most east coast streams and have been extended to several others since. The result ought to have been a perfect predictor for the Thompson, but no one paid attention. None of the Vancouver Island streams had significant hatchery influence, so that had no bearing on outcomes. The steelhead stocks in all Vancouver Island streams of note have not improved after at least five generations of angling closures.

    I’d offer the Olympic Peninsula steelhead fishery angling restrictions of last winter as a good example of conservation vs. business and economics, although conservation did get at least some attention there. It strikes me that the demographic of the salmon and steelhead angling community is top-heavy to people my age or thereabouts. There is no such thing as a next generation to throw any torch to. If angling was to be terminated on the Columbia for long enough to gauge fish responses, the younger component of the angler population who may have carried on with demand for business opportunity will have faded away, along with the conservation-focused demands of the non-business-oriented component of the population.

    No one in the political community wants to acknowledge the inevitability of what you (Bob Lackey) said years ago in Defending Reality. Senior managers whose jobs depend on toeing the line are likewise unprepared to tell it like it is. You’ve demonstrated all of that in spades to my satisfaction. What else can you do but keep on leading the horse to water?

    • Good pts., Bob H. When I worked on steelhead in the Thompson R. drainage (specifically, the Nicola R.) in mid-1990s, there was already concern about their decline, well over 2.5 decades ago. To iterate, we need “share the pain” solutions that better address all 4 H’s, both for fairness & to deal more effectively w/ cumulative impacts. So no, anglers shouldn’t have to be the “fall guy” re: the Pac.-salmonid declines. As Trout Unlimited likes to say, if we can take c/o the salmonids, they’ll provide us fishing opps. later on. But not if we don’t deal w/ the other 3 H’s!

      • I think a major problem facing salmonid recovery is that there is no one answer. As this exercise points out, doing just one of the H’s won’t fix the problem. Seems to me that in the US when we have had success in recovery of an ESA listed species it is because there was a single action to take (such as stop killing them) because there was sufficient habitat for the species to function in. Anadromous salmonids require reasonably intact terrestrial systems, reasonably intact aquatic freshwater systems, reasonably intact estuarial systems, and a reasonably intact marine system. There are simply too many players who can (rightly) say “Why me, why not you?”. And, in our increasingly politicized system, money speaks loudest.

  22. Salmon and steelhead are in conflict with the economy. That includes agency funding for hatcheries and revenues from fisheries for hatchery fish. Wild salmon are a constraint on the fishery and interfere with development of watersheds by government land and water agencies and urban development. Climate is also in conflict with the economy. The two factors in their many ecological and genetic expressions imposed on the salmon productivity in ocean and freshwater environments have set salmon up for extinction since 1875 when Spencer Baird, the first US Fish Commissioner, announced that hatcheries can replace regulation of harvest and protection of salmon habitat. Hatcheries became the mitigation tool for salmon. A recent discussion by members of the Power Planning Council said their concern is mitigation not salmon recovery. Mitigation is funded but conservation is not. The Baird perspective was published in The Oregonian not in a technical publication. His framework, fit the perspective of Euro-American colonizers and has remained the primary perspective of land, water and fish management since. Every management decision made for salmon and climate is constrained by whether it is consistent with agency funding and corporate profits. How do you get permission to build a dam? Build a mitigation hatchery. Fishery agencies have never established wild salmon and steelhead escapement criteria by tributary in the Columbia River so wild salmon are those left over after harvest. However, fishery agencies constrain and close fisheries to secure escapement for a hatchery when egg take is threatened.

    The salmon management framework is accepted and not discussed or challenged. It is based on an agricultural model for crop production. “The history of Pacific salmon conservation is a classic case of ‘command-and-control’ management of renewable resources. Fishery management developed from an agricultural model of conservation. It devised methods to stabilize fish production at optimum levels by controlling or removing presumed limitations to survival and yield. Biologists selected salmon spawning partners and controlled rearing conditions in hatcheries; dictated the sizes, times, and locations for releasing hatchery fish; established predator control programs to eliminate threats from other fishes, birds, mammals, and regulated harvest to achieve the maximum yield. The National Research Council (1996) concluded that fragmentation of institutional responsibilities and a mismatch between the spatial scales of salmon habitats and management jurisdictions severely undermined salmon conservation throughout the Pacific Northwest…regulations applied broadly to large stock aggregates have eliminated salmon populations too small to withstand harvest rates set for the most productive stocks” (Bottom et al. 2011)

    This series of comments by scientists to Bob Lackey’s questions point to problems that need to be resolved by the fishery agencies they have or do work for. However, the scientific information that points out impacts of hatcheries, fisheries and habitat on wild salmon are written for other scientists not to increase public understanding of the problems and how they are interconnected. Their studies have to qualify for approval by the agencies or universities they work for to get funding to do the studies. Not only are studies approved for funding published in private journals that require a fee to read, they are incomprehensible to the non-science public and media. Yet, the public and the media need to know what the scientists know in order to inform the public about problems that need resolution. Why are wolves getting more public notice than wild salmon? The salmon advocates are at war with each other over harvest while the wolf advocates are concerned about conservation.

    There is a huge amount of important international research on wild salmon impacts by human decisions, but it is housed in filing cabinets and private journals. There have been a few attempts to inform the public about the problems of salmon management and conservation such as Salmon Without Rivers by Lichatowich published in 1999, but those are rare and infrequent. There have been efforts to confront government management decisions and available to the public such as the reports by the IMST in Oregon (now defunct) but the management agency merely dismissed them. Their primary response is the agency lacks the funding to apply the recommendations by the Independent Multidisciplinary Science Team. The Power Council’s technical advisory committees are available to the public if they knew about them. The Power Council recently put out an interactive video on the importance of hatcheries but there is no video about the importance of wild salmon.

    When the Independent Economic Advisory Committee (IEAB) published their review of some hatcheries in the Columbia River basin showing how much it cost to produce a harvested salmon, it was not well received by the fishery agencies. When the IEAB asked the Council to do an economic review of all hatcheries in the Columbia River basin it was not approved. An economic review of Mitchell Act Hatcheries for NMFS found that it was a deficit spending program. The economics team was fired and NMFS found an economist that gave them the answer they wanted.

    In 2004 the NMFS administrator was pressured by the Bush Administration to change the hatchery policy to include hatchery fish in the recovery of wild threatened salmon and steelhead, called hatchery supplementation. The advisor to President Bush on this issue was an attorney that represented the timber industry that sued NMFS over its hatchery policy. The economic interests of the timber industry were threatened by wild salmon. The S.W. and NW NMFS Fisheries Science Centers opposed a change in the hatchery policy based on their information that using hatchery fish to recover wild fish was a dead end. (Varanasi and Fox 2004) The NMFS also had a selected committee (RSRP 2004) approved by the National Research Council, that also was developing a conservation plan for wild salmon. The scientists were ignored and NMFS rejected their conservation plan. That created a public response by the Washington Post, Union of Concerned Scientists and the conservation plan was published in Science (Meyers 2004). None of this scientific criticism had an effect on the decision by NMFS to use hatcheries to recover wild salmon.

    Many scientists supported in a public letter the removal of the four lower Snake River dams and they made sure the media was informed. Would it actually provide the benefits expected for wild salmon conservation in the Snake River. It would help, certainly. However, overloading the ocean with 5.5 billion hatchery salmon when the ocean is overheated and more acidic would also have an impact on wild salmon food supply. Not having spawner escapement requirements by tributary along with protection and restoration of habitat conditions compromises spawner abundance, nutrient enrichment and spawning and rearing conditions.

    The response to Bob Lackey’s question has been insightful and helpful but it continues to overlook salmon are in conflict with the economic interests of fishery, land and water management institutional interests. Also, scientists have not provided the public with information that could be used to pressure changes in management policy for conservation of wild salmon.

    Baird, S. 1875. The Salmon Fisheries of Oregon. Oregonian (Portland), March 3.

    Bottom, Daniel et al. 2011. Pathways to Resilience: Sustaining Salmon Ecosystems in a Changing World. Oregon Sea Grant. Oregon State University.
    Lichatowich, J.A. 1999. Salmon Without Rivers. Island Press.

    Meyers, Ransom et al. Hatcheries and Endangered Salmon. 2004. Ecology, Science, Vol. 303.

    National Marine Fisheries Service. 2004. Endangered and threatened species: proposed policy on the consideration of hatchery-origin fish in Endangered Species Act Listing Determinations for Pacific salmon and steelhead. Fed. Reg. 69:31354-31359.

    National Research Council. 1996. Upstream, Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

    Travis, Joe, Russell Lande, Marc Mangel, Ransom A. Myers, Pete Peterson, Mary Power, Dan Simberloff. 2004. (RSRP) Part Two: The ESU Concept, Hatcheries, Listing, and Recovery. Salmon Recovery Science Review Panel (RSRP) Report for the meeting held August 30-September 2, 2004. Northwest Fisheries Science Center. National Marine Fisheries Service. Seattle, Washington.

    Union of Concerned Scientists. 2004. Deleting Scientific Advice on Endangered Salmon. UCS report Scientific Integrity in Policymaking.

    Varanasi, Usha. 2004. Review of proposed hatchery listing policy. Memorandum to D. Robert Lohn, Regional Administrator, NW Region, National Marine Fisheries Service from Usha Varanasi, Director of the NW Fisheries Science Center and William Fox, Director, SW Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service.

    • I think that we’re all painfully aware of the socioeconomic & political constraints on wild-salmon recovery, Bill (not to mention climate-change or pandemic mgmt.). And I believe that concern was the basis of Bob Lackey’s posting.

      FYI, the most-cynical case of hatchery “mitigation” was when the illegal, lower Elwha dam went in. The hatchery never even became functional, being just a “paper promise”. And the hype that young salmonids could easily outmigrate thru both dams was simply untrue. Rather, high smolt mortality was a big justification for dam-breaching there. Inaccurate spin has been around a long time, sigh.

  23. Hi All,

    I’m a little late to the party here, but in reading through many of the comments this morning I’m impressed by the breadth of opinion and passion for the topic. I find that I’m in agreement with Ed Hanna and a few of the others as far as utility of these results and a possible next step in this line of investigation. First what appears in the study may be expert, but it’s still opinion. Depressing, might be right, but still. That’s why I agree with Ed. Let’s use all those expert opinions to define parameters and their variance and try to model potential outcomes based on the hypotheses proposed for the influence of a couple of H’s.

    I do also agree to some extent with the opinions put forth that continued work around the edges won’t achieve anything moving forward other than the application of a political salve to mollify interest groups. There is momentum now behind removal of the snake river dams. If that actually happens the modeling effort proposed becomes even more important because it would allow us to test some model output predictions.

    I also find the specific angler-cessation case studies presented above by Bob Hooten to be intriguing. In how many individual watersheds has this been run as an incidental experiment? That, too, might give better credence to the hypotheses put forth.

    • Sadly, the answer is there has been no consistent monitoring, much less reporting, on the longer term consequences of forbidding angling on streams on either Vancouver Island or the two major Fraser River tributaries (Thompson and Chilcotin). The common excuse is “we don’t have the staff and resources to undertake this work”. The anglers themselves who once had significant influence on management priorities and undertakings are essentially gone on Vancouver Island. The T&C anglers who have only relatively recently been sidelined are close behind them.

  24. This blog is tough to read, but the comments are even more stressful to read. Bob Lackey makes two statements that I find capture our collective dilemma:

    (1) “Anyone even moderately familiar with the history of North American West Coast salmon is well aware of the main causes of the dire state of salmon runs along the West Coast. These causes are well documented scientifically and include fluctuating and long-term climatic and ocean conditions, dams, mining, water pollution, habitat alteration, over-fishing, irrigation water withdrawals, predation on salmon by many species (often non-native fish species), and many other influences.”

    (2) “These tradeoffs are wholly unpleasant politically; thus, it should not be surprising that options that would actually recover wild salmon are rarely implemented.”

    Society (through the democratic political process for at least a century) has already made the key choices between competing public policy priorities. We scientists (and many salmon advocates) hang on to a naive notion that if the illiterate public and politicians just understood the causes of the decline (#1 quote above), then the policy choices would be different.

    So, here we go again, explaining it one more time in a blind hope that the public (and their elected representatives) will reverse their past and current choices. Face it, pretty much everyone accepts the first quote cited above, so the causes of the decline are not in dispute, nor are the choices required to reverse the long-term decline.

    The tribes have it right: if the goal is big salmon runs, hatcheries are the only option that passes the reality test.

    • Again, we need to deal w/ cumulative impacts if we want bigger wild-salmon runs; that’s the reality that I think several commenters have a hard time accepting. Hydropower dams are a big problem, despite improved operations. It’s akin to us walking to work, which is best facilitated by having safe neighborhoods to pass thru. For native-anadromous fishes, reservoirs aren’t safe neighborhoods.

      • We know that too much hatchery production can cause density dependence in the Pac. Ocean when conditions aren’t as good there (Pearcy 1992), which won’t be improved by climate change (esp. considering ocean acidification’s impact on food availability). So more of the same will have diminishing returns & would likely just impact wild salmon more via scramble competition, potentially violating the fed. ESA.

        Let me use add to my recent analogy. Would we want to replace ourselves w/ clones if we had to traverse unsafe neighborhoods to get to work, as the “solution”? We’ve created an existential problem for Pac. salmonids that we need to solve creatively & w/ guts.

  25. This might be the right venue and the right time to consider a paradigm shift that these precious stocks – wild salmon and steelhead – cannot recover – ever. It is even credulous they cannot persist at their present population levels.

    If you do not accept that, then the only course is the “All H” strategy everyone talks about. But, it is only conversation. With human population growth and core societal imperatives that place salmon recovery in a subordinated position, implementing substantial resource investments into those four disciplines simultaneously is beyond unlikely.

    Therefore, if you can emotionally or intellectually embrace the certain demise of wild stocks, it becomes prudent to adopt the view expressed above by Phyllis and look to ways to grow wild + hatchery total abundance. We already know how to create best practices HO fish that do not impair NO fitness during commingled spawning events by utilizing 100% NOB. Some will argue it is shortsighted to take wild fish into the hatchery and produce hatchery fish with those limited genes, especially during low NO return years. But, consider the alternative imperative of making maximum use of those limited genes while we still have them to use.

    It can be argued salmon are a much higher cultural need to Tribal Nations than any of the other stakeholder groups engaged in this process. One of the Tribal representatives on the OHRC board during my tenure stated their viewpoint clearly: “Hatchery fish are not bad, they are not good, they are just necessary.”

    To return to Dr. Lackey’s original thought experiment to evaluate total elimination of all hatchery and harvest practices vis a vis salmon recovery we can look to a recent NOAA draft with input from USFWS, the Nez Perce Tribe and the state of Oregon on rebuilding Columbia Basin salmonid stocks. In it they identify seven factors limiting recovery: tributary habitat; estuary habitat; hydro systems; blocked migration pathways; predation; fisheries and hatcheries. For each of the thirteen ESA-listed stocks, the two least limiting factors to recovery are fisheries and hatcheries. Being of the opinion that eliminating them will positively impact abundance or productivity is not supported in this five year project, nor in this writer’s opinion.

    • Brad, if we can fund high-powered military operations, then we can fund dealing better w/ the 4 H’s. In fact, that’s Parts 1 (harvesting/hatcheries) & 2 (habitat/hydropower) of the Boldt decision. Note that western-WA tribes secured the culvert decision to improve fish passage, as part of this process. My educated guess is that the tribes will push fish passage vs. dams when they they’re confident of winning in court. In any case, the Colville Tribes are pushing for fish passage past the Chief Joseph (easy) & Grand Coulee (harder) dams in the mainstem Columbia R. The sky’s the limit when people have mojo (imagination/guts).

      • Passage upstream of the dams does not do anything to fix the reservoirs and internal predation by exotic fish. Even then, dealing with the 4-H’s continues to ignore the human population growth and their increasing demands for water food, power, recreation, transportation, and so on. At the end of the day, until we deal with human population it’s an exercise in futility.

        And, I suspect that a sizable majority is willing to support the military to protect the country. I seriously doubt that there is a majority willing to give up water, food, power, and so on for salmon restoration. Protect the Olympic Peninsula; fine. But keep your hands off off the Columbia or Puget Sound or the Central Valley.

        • The Colville Tribes have proposed bypassing salmonids around Lk. Roosevelt, if that’s possible, & I’ve seen another proposal (less-developed) for the lower Snake R. Maybe we should call human population the 5th H, but now w/ density dependence in play via severe diseases, war, & climate-change disasters (e.g., hurricanes & wildfires), I think that nature is indeed “batting”.

  26. This exchange is rehashing much that has undergone extensive rehashing in the past. Further it is not clear that the rehashing is leading to new revelations. Sure, there are always technical details to be resolved but if we go back to the original question posed by Professor Lackey, I do not see any comments that would change the outcome of his survey.

    At the core of this issue is money and ethics. Money in terms of how much is it going to cost to maintain “desirable” salmon runs at a size great enough to satisfy the needs of multiple parties. Associated with this question, is who is going to foot the bill? The public or the vested interests? And if the latter, what proportion is going to be footed by each of the vested parties.

    Ethics relates to the view that “Nature knows best” and human intervention in “wild” stocks is not only fraught with uncertainty but is ethically repulsive. This debate is not restricted to salmon but is pervasive within Western society generally. However, the original question did not raise this issue. This issue is not a scientific question of the nature raised in the survey. Having scientists pronounce on such matters runs the inescapable hazard of stealth advocacy.

    In conclusion, I think the results of the survey are compelling and are certainly adequate to support a subsequent policy debate on the best course forward. I do not think this blog is the place for that policy debate and confounding the policy debate with scientific technicalities is not helpful. Life is full of uncertainties. The challenge is to make the best decision in the face of these uncertainties and with the best scientific information in hand. The results of this survey are helpful in this context.

    • Ed, let’s think thru this logically. Clearly, Bob L.’s blog indicates that just dealing w/ 1-2 H’s, specifically those relevant to Boldt I, won’t achieve major recovery of wild salmon. The interestingly testable hypothesis is what would the result be if the other 1-2 H’s (from Boldt II) were included in a questionnaire. I believe that the result would’ve been more positive for recovery, although I agree w/ Hal that human-population growth makes restoration tougher.

      I also agree that there’s been a lot of advocacy in this blog (not sure that’s it’s very stealthy) promoting continued hatchery production to keep harvesting going. But we really will have to do things differently if we want a better result. Unfortunately, getting anybody to agree w/ anybody else during the pandemic has become nearly impossible, as “but” frequently replaces “yes and”. But blogs are meant to generate discussion, so your request for everyone to shut up smacks of another Covidocene problem; a trend towards authoritarianism:

      Balsley, K. 2022. In support of personal responsibility & respecting freedom. Thurston-Mason Senior News (Olympia, WA) 2022(7): 6 (cf.

      • I think if one reads Bob V’s comment closely you will see one of the major disconnects to salmon recovery. He says we need to do things differently if we want a “better” result. Please define better. I would prefer to see wild salmonids. But I would prefer to see them in watersheds that are functioning “naturally”; no dams, nice floodplains, nice estuaries. There are others who want fish to eat. As a Lummi (US Tribe) manager once said “Wild fish are nice but the people gotta eat.”

        There are a couple of things about hatchery fish that make them very attractive. Besides the high harvest rates that can be applied they require significantly less water and land to produce. That water and land can go to other societal purposes.

        I think that this discussion has pointed out that even amongst the salmonid scientists we can’t agree on what a desirable outcome is.

        One of the recommendations that came out of many of the chapters in Salmon 2100 was “triage”. Twenty years on that is still a good recommendation.

  27. Sigh, Hurricane Ian is really hitting FL, etc. now, w/ hundreds of fatalities so far. I was glad to hear the interviewed professor (on “Democracy Now”) talk about too many people living at too-low coastal elevations in this climate-change era. Such transparency will hopefully provide the “wake-up call” for people to stay safer. When I lived there, I puzzled at why the shoreline views there cost more $, considering the dangers.

    Re: the term “stealth advocacy”, I’ve seen it being used a lot by consultants, its definition being any position that disagrees w/ their goals. E.g., consultants promoting dam bldg. in the Chehalis R. (in southwestern WA) accused me of this for predicting that an upper-river dam might extirpate spring Chinook, but that’s a big reason that the dam proposal has been tabled for now. Similarly, while a consultant in AB, my colleagues branded an environmental writer as a stealth advocate, for logically criticizing dam operations there to be fish unfriendly. So the term has been cynically sullied.

  28. I am not sure what the basis is for this allegation “so your request for everyone to shut up smacks of another Covidocene problem; a trend towards authoritarianism”. I would never suggest that everyone should shut up nor was I was I promoting “authoritarianism”. Go ahead and talk until the cows come home, COVID or no COVID. In the meantime, decisions need to be made and hopefully, balanced and fair decisions that are based on the best science available.

    The results of the “Lackey” survey, I think, are valuable for informing these difficult decisions. One of those decisions is the effort/money that should be invested, if any, in hatcheries vs restoring wild salmon populations. However, the results of the survey are not the only relevant consideration for these decisions. As I alluded to, there is also a vexing underlying ethical question as well.

    I do not think the results of the survey have much value, if any, in addressing this second question.

    BTW, I also recognise that for some, these discussions can become quite personal. For that reason, I think everyone needs to be quite vigilant not to make comments that have a flavour of personal criticism.

  29. 2 of Ed’s comments to deal w/:

    “I do not think this blog is the place for that policy debate and confounding the policy debate with scientific technicalities is not helpful.”

    No, policy debate infused w/ science is what this blog is all about, which you don’t hold the “reigns” for.

    “For that reason, I think everyone needs to be quite vigilant not to make comments that have a flavour of personal criticism.”

    If you want to dish out terms like “stealth advocacy”, you should be prepared for questions about your own objectivity.

    • Science has to be part of the policy discussion and policy has to be part of discussions about science. I am probably somewhat naive about how it should work, but here goes.

      Publications and presentations of science should be free of policy constraints. The fish need X, the river needs Y, and so on. It must be stated forcefully and clearly what is needed by the resources for them to function in a self-sustaining situation and the authors must be clear in presenting it as “If you want A you must do B”. At this point, policy constraints such as economics, law, treaties, and so on can be brought in as possible confounding needs.

      From the policy side, decisions must be presented in their entirety. What forces are at play? Don’t tell me that the best thing we can do for starving Killer Whales is keep boats away so they can now starve in silence.

      I believe that we must actually hold “leadership” accountable. Down to the point of requiring mileposts of accomplishment. In this exercise, let’s say that we actually do close hatcheries and fisheries. The decision makers have (say) 20 years to achieve wild fish run sizes that are agreed upon. If, at the end of the 20 years, all bets are off and the hatcheries and fisheries can resume. We must demand performance.

      • Yes Hal, as they say, if one doesn’t know where they’re going, they’ll prob. get there. We do need wild-salmon recovery, i.e., salmon w/ rivers. Notably, the WA F&W Commission axed a recent WDFW director who didn’t differentiate wild vs. hatchery salmonids for mgmt. needs.

        Natural-resource negotiations often bring in science, as well as socioeconomic, political, legal, etc. factors, to better represent all interest grps. That’s as it should be, but some trust among these grps. is needed to actually make progress & not just be a “Tower of Babel”.

        And yes, there needs to be leadership accountability, if the process really is to be adaptive mgmt., which more people talk about than actually accomplish. True experiments provide more-reliable knowledge, e.g., not allowing Elwha R. restoration to be confounded by hatchery-steelhead stocking.

        BTW, the expression “until the cows come home” is no longer practicable in the Am. West w/ the recovery of wolves, but that’s another story for another day!

  30. I have included a hyperlink to a recent NOAA Fisheries report on “Rebuilding Interior Colombia Basin Salmon and Steelhead. It is stated that the assessment includes a “suite of actions within the greatest likelihood towards making a positive impact on returning stocks to harvestable levels”.

    It’s important to note footnote 18. It references dam breaching on the Snake River and that “breaching refers to the earthen portion of the dam as a migration corridor”.

  31. Here’s a nice summary article re: the importance of the 4 H’s for salmonids in smaller streams:

    Dunagan, C. 2022. Study raises questions about using ‘woody debris’ to restore streams. Encyclopedia of Puget Sound (University of Washington, Tacoma Center for Urban Waters, Puget Sound Institute), August 31: 1 p. (

    LWD placements alone may often not make a big difference, but other habitat- & passage-restoration actions may be more effective, including beaver restoration (which does affect lotic wood). So we need to be cognizant of the suite of limiting factors to get more “bang for the buck”.

  32. Thanks, Bob, for carrying out this survey and to all those who have responded so far. I would also like to comment on the report.

    Bob Lackey’s results (essentially little anticipated benefit to Columbia wild salmon of shutting down Columbia watershed hatcheries and fisheries), which were based on expert opinions, are interesting but do not surprise me. As background, I have worked on salmonids for some 40 years, both in fresh water and the ocean, but was not one of the experts surveyed.

    My reasoning may differ from the reasons of the various experts, however:
    (1) many or perhaps most hatchery and fishing effects on Columbia salmon occur outside the Columbia watershed and (2) effects of climate warming and variability are only going to increase in the marine (and freshwater) ecosystems.

    Considering each of these separately:
    (1) Columbia hatcheries release only a tiny proportion of the 5 billion hatchery salmon released into the North Pacific every year ( ). Most Columbia River salmon spend much of their lives in the Gulf of Alaska where they live and compete with multiple species of salmon, both from Asia and North America. In fact, ~ 40% of the biomass of hatchery salmon in this region is of hatchery origin ( ); numerous studies have documented reduced salmon growth and survival in years of abundant salmon.
    (2) Most scientists agree that the future abundance of salmon in southern regions will decline in response to a changing climate (e.g., ). Climate effects will occur regardless of whether Columbia hatcheries and fisheries are reduced; in other words, wild Columbia salmon will decline regardless.

    There is no way for me to know why the experts voted the way that they did. No doubt there are various reasons. It is interesting to speculate on what the results would be from an expanded survey if experts were polled on their views of effects on wild Columbia salmon of a) no fishing mortality on Columbia salmon anywhere, b) no hatchery releases anywhere, and c) no fishing and no hatcheries anywhere. My guess is that many would conclude Columbia wild salmon would benefit. A different thought experiment perhaps?

    My main message is that to understand the response of returning salmon within any watershed to changes within that watershed, it is necessary to consider the ecosystem where the salmon spend most of their lives, i.e., the ocean.

    • Jim, the survey was restricted to those who have worked directly on Columbia R. issues, & may’ve included only American fisheries scientists, now that dams block most Pac.-salmonid access to Canada (except in the Okanogan/Okanagan R. watershed). I guess I gotta say it again; we need to deal w/ all 4 H’s holistically if we want to see more wild salmon here, notably for the Snake R. that has 4 detrimental dams D/S (Storch et al. 2022). And our paper did highlight the notable dam impacts on spring/summer Chinook & summer steelhead despite changing (cyclic) ocean conditions.

    • It was my understanding that the “no fishing” essentially applied to the Columbia River salmon wherever they were encountered. That would mean that the marine fisheries that intercept them would be closed as well as in-river. The Columbia lacks accessible quality salmonid habitat because of the dams. As long as they exist the wild fish don’t have a chance at being more than mere remnants of pre-dam pre-industrial fishing levels.

  33. Hal, thanks but the thought experiment was prefaced with the statement that we “assume that the U.S. Government decides to immediately and permanently (1) eliminate all releases from hatcheries (i.e., close them all forever) and (2) stop all fishing directly targeting salmon and steelhead”. I think it is reasonable to assume that the thought experiment was only with respect to hatcheries and fishing within the Columbia watershed and perhaps approach areas since the U.S. government does not control most more northerly fisheries.

    A quick skim of the actual responses provided above suggests to me that most folks were thinking primarily of hatchery – wild interactions rather than marine carrying capacity, and I expect this is what Bob Lackey intended. I notice however that response B1 essentially makes the same point as me.

    • That’s not how I interpreted Bob’s question. I interpreted it to mean that all fishing on Columbia Basin salmon would cease, regardless of where it occurs. And that all hatcheries in the Columbia Basin would close.

      I agree the U.S. government does not control fishing in many areas of the North Pacific (e.g., British Columbia), but they also don’t control all the hatcheries in the Columbia Basin. There are plenty of State and Tribal hatcheries that release salmon and steelhead. So I interpreted his question to mean that ALL hatcheries in the Columbia Basin would close, and that ALL fishing on Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead would cease, regardless of the practicality of doing that.

    • True on BC but at last check Alaska was part of the US and the Feds could control fisheries there as well as off the WA/OR coast and in the river. I think most folks familiar with the Columbia recognize that the dams and reservoirs are a huge driver in keeping salmon numbers down. Dealing with the hatcheries and harvest while leaving the dams intact is simply fiddling while Rome burns.

  34. Clearly, the survey wasn’t perfect communication, but the take-home msg. is still that dealing w/ just 2 H’s isn’t enough to recover wild salmon in the Columbia R. basin. Certainly, AK is infamous for taking both BC & WA salmon to complicate things, a problem of high-seas fisheries that could be resolved by allowing harvests only close to spawning-river basins. That would make fishing safer & reduce fuel use, too, w/ climate-mgmt. benefits. I think that Canada promotes hydropower more than the USA does now, e.g., BC Hydro having “semi-hero” status. But Canada hasn’t yet diversified its alt.-energy resources like the USA, China, & Europe have tried to do.


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