Tuesday, June 17, 2014

5 environmental stressors to PNW river systems that concern anglers...

1. Dams. The great majority of power in the northwest comes from hydro. When I have this debate, I like to remind my readers that I'm plugging my computer in on Pacific Power's Blue Sky Energy program so I'm not supporting major obstacles to wild spawning grounds. In many cases, hatcheries were created to substitute the rapidly declining fish populations in systems that cutoff spawning habitat upriver. The construction of fish ladders has opened passage to wild spawning grounds in many river systems, but the dam itself is still a major man-made obstacle that creates ecological problems.

2. Commercial fishing. While l
ong-lining is a much more sustainable method of harvest, gill-netting puts wild fish populations at risk. The by-catch of this method includes lots of protected and endangered species. Many anglers regularly land wild steelhead with gill net scars. For every one that gets away there's probably several that don't. Exceptions for tribal gill-netting and hatchery programs create a problem that presents a unique challenge of finding a reasonable compromise considering American history.

3. Riparian Timber Harvest. Politically motivated lawmakers have allowed the harvest of timber in Riparian zones to creep closer to the water. None have made a serious effort to prevent the illegal harvest of timber near river systems nor have they made a priority of prosecuting timber companies that violate the current regulations. The result is landslides that are blatantly caused by logging too close to the water, causing timber to fall into the river, perpetuating erosion and landslides that are extremely detrimental to the river dynamic, destroying the natural spawning habitat. Fry hatch in gravel and use the nooks and crannies until they have consumed their yolk, then they use boulders as shelter from predators and current. This sort of logging creates a "sandbox" habitat that makes the first stages of life for hatching smolts difficult, and in cases like the Oso, WA landslide, a large portion of spawning habitat in the Stillaguamish River that had previously been in the process of restoration was completely buried. The effects of those sort of incidents are catastrophic. Anglers have been lobbying the state to prevent riparian zone harvest on that system since the 1930's. That "accident" could have been prevented.

4. Predator management. This is a tough subject. For the most part I disagree with the practice as a whole because it involves a lot of wasteful killing. However, seals and sea lions have learned to exploit man made obstacles like dams and fish ladders. They do not share the same discretion for harvesting hatchery fish that anglers are required to do, and their diet includes endangered and protected wild fish. They are also far more wasteful with their harvest than humans. Humans will eat a majority of the meat on a fish, while seals and sea lions are specifically trying to consume the belly meat for it's high fat content. It's very common for a single seal or sea lion to harvest twelve times the number of fish than an angler that limits out in a day. This predatory "overfishing" can be attributed to an overpopulated furry mammal that used to be a major food source for northwestern tribes before someone came along and decided cute mammals were more important to protect than slimy things that swim. Hunting rights for these animals and preservation of heritage are a priority for many of these Pacific Northwestern Coastal tribes. There are also discussions surrounding management of cormorants, an overpopulated and invasive waterfowl that consumes massive amounts of smolts. There are already other programs in the Southeastern U.S. that are trying public management of these birds to save not only the fish they eat, but the habitat they destroy by decreasing water quality and killing century old cypress trees due to their collective deposits of fecal matter.

5. Removal of Hatchery Programs. I am still open to seeing what new science develops on this topic, but in the meantime I don't believe shutting down hatcheries is going to help fish populations. If you put 25,000 smolts in a river that would only produce 5,000 juvenile fish on it's own, you are providing a buffer for the spawning habitat taken away by man made obstacles like dams. You're replacing the commercially harvested fish so some of them can actually get to the rivers. You're providing a rearing operation that replaces the cobble covered by sand from erosion due to over harvest of timber. You're putting a few extra in there to feed the predators (they gotta eat too, right?) and the most common sense argument here is that 25,000 > 5,000. I would even argue that placing hatchery fish in a river provides a buffer to the predation of wild fish populations.

There are plenty of valid arguments that hatcheries are a band aid solution, but it's the best we've got until people begin to consider problems 1-4.

In many systems, hatchery fish come from wild broodstock and wild fish come from hatchery stock that spawn in the river. One of the political reasons behind the cease of some hatchery planting programs is that planted fish come from broodstock programs at hatcheries on other rivers. A lot of these fish return to that hatchery via the ocean and their river of origin rather than returning to the system where they were planted. If they are trucked from the hatchery, that costs money. If they are trapped and returned to the hatchery for broodstock programs, that costs money. If many of the planted fish go up the wrong river, people start to question whether it's worth paying to restore a fish population to a river where it might otherwise not exist. If fishermen didn't purchase licenses and harvest tags that fund hatchery programs, there might not be any fish to fish for, and there would be financial chaos from losing major industries that are supported by the existence of these animals.

This article was published by The Good Men Project on September 7th, 2014

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