I know very few people who haven't seen or heard of a story about some animal that was taken in by humans to be cared for then released to the wild only to die or at least heard a story where they said they couldn't release the animal back into the wild because it would die. Stop me if I am telling tales out of school here.
It would be fantastic if we could simply allow hatchery fish to go off and spawn with wild fish and watch as our salmon stocks rebounded to numbers not seen since Lewis and my old uncle Clark came floating down the Clearwater. Truly if we could have our salmon and our dams, I wouldn't have to write this stuff and our interest in Pacific salmon would rarely go beyond, "wow, that fish swam this far," and "damn, that's tasty!" We wouldn't have to take a daily census of the fish as they traverse each dam either. Truly, the world would be a better place, if only a supplementation program could deliver on its promise and if you read that first article up there, it certainly looks promising.
But it isn't. Every supplementation program in place is weakening the wild genetics and replacing truly special fish, fish that evolved especially for the stretch of water they are born and later die in, and we are replacing them with pets. Pets don't fare as well as the street savvy wild fish, especially when they come into contact with orca or any other danger for that matter.
What you see in these supplementation program studies are fairly consistent and alarming findings. But, you say, the article clearly points out that Snake River fall Chinook, both wild and hatchery are coming back in larger numbers. Yes, that is true, but that is also to be expected. Stay with me on this because I want the Nez Perce to have figured this thing out as much as anyone, but the problem is at least two-fold as I see it.
It's too early to call this a success as the first article seems to be leaning toward doing. Studies generally show the amount of eggs that return with each successive supplemented generation are much lower than the eggs from wild returners. Something like 40 percent less, which is alarming. There are a few things that are rarely focused on in this salmon debate that are critical, they are fecundity, sex ratios and most importantly the fact that we are trying to save WILD FISH, not hatchery fish, not hatchery/wild fish offspring, but WILD FISH. Imagine for a second, instead of releasing wolves into Yellowstone and the wilderness of Idaho, we just released a bunch of Cocker Spaniels and called it good. OK, perhaps a blog being generated in the state of Idaho shouldn't ever use the wolf reintroduction as an analogy.
Let's say you have a wild female coming back with 5,000 eggs. If she spawns with other wild fish, her offspring will likely have similar fecundity rates. If she spawns with hatchery fish allowed to stay in the stream to spawn, studies have shown a couple of things, the returning offspring will have fewer eggs and there are likely to be fewer offspring returning. Now, you are probably disagreeing with me as that story clearly states there are more returning fish. Well, yes, when you allow more fish to spawn, you will generally get back more and more fish, but those numbers you see, if those were all wild fish spawning and not three parts hatchery and one part wild, the returning numbers would blow you away.
Of course there are more fish returning now, but they are weaker and the females will have less eggs, and I don't know the reason why, this is just something studies have found. Tame fish spawning with wild fish produce less wild and therefore less strong offspring. When you have this situation there are a myriad of other factors that can eventually lead to a complete collapse of the population. But I would argue once you start mixing the genetics of hatchery and wild fish, you've already killed off the wild fish (yes, they say they have been able to keep 90 percent of the genetics alive from the 16 wild sockeye of Redfish Lake that returned in the 1990s in the offspring of that program but no fish born in a plastic bag is wild and mice are about 99 percent the genetic twin of humans, so take that with a grain of salt). Remember hybridization is one of the enemies of salmon recovery and supplementation is human-championed hybridization.
I don't know how to explain it to you why our fattened hatchery fish are weaker than our wild fish, though I am sure you can think of many relative examples that sort of explain it to you. And I don't really have a good way of explaining how or why the genetics of the weaker version seem to come to influence greatly the offspring of a hatchery/wild fish. Except to say there are some learned traits and some instinctual traits and somehow, someway mixing hatchery fish with wild, evolved for that water, fish isn't passing on all the evolved traits and instead are passing on some traits of the hatchery fish that serve no purpose to the offspring in a wild situation.
While we are clearly doing supplementation programs, may I ask everyone involved that they leave alone all stocks of Pacific salmon and steelhead that come back to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and its tributaries. Please allow all remaining wild stocks of Pacific salmon and steelhead to remain that way as you determine whether or not your supplementation program is working or not in what I consider to be far too large a laboratory already.