Pacific Salmon Crisis:

An Interview with James Lichatowich

From the Environmental Review Newsletter Volume One Number Six, June 1994


James Lichatowich was one of three authors of the paper, Pacific Salmon at the Crossroads: Stocks at Risk from California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. This paper documented the decline of populations of wild salmon, steelhead and sea-run cutthroat on the West Coast of the U.S. south of British Columbia. Reasons for the decline of salmonids include habitat loss and damage, dams, agriculture, logging, overfishing, and negative interactions with hatchery fish.

     Mr. Lichatowich received an M.S. in fisheries science. He is a private consultant and has numerous technical and non-technical publications on salmon and conservation.

ER: Mr. Lichatowich why are salmon populations crashing on the west coast of the U.S?  

JL: There is no one cause for the salmon crisis south of British Columbia. This is what makes resolution of the salmon problem so difficult. There is no one thing that we can go out and fix which will correct the problem.

     Salmon penetrate the Northwest ecosystem to an extent unmatched by other animals. The salmon range from the small streams to the North Pacific ocean. As they move through this vast ecosystem, salmon come into contact with nearly all of our economic activities from drift netting in the ocean to forest practices in the headwaters of rivers. They come in contact with such a wide range of human activities in the Northwest that there is no one thing that you can point to and say, if you can fix this, you'd have the problem solved.

     The dams in the Columbia River are a major problem but we shouldn't be fooled into thinking dams are the only problem. There are areas like the Oregon coast where only one per-cent of the habitat is impacted by dams, and yet coho production is now around five per-cent of historic levels. And that includes both hatchery and wild coho production.

     Right now salmon production is about twenty per-cent of historic levels south of British Columbia. This suggests to me ecosystem-wide deterioration, which is a major crisis.  If we lost eighty percent of our forest production or eighty percent of our agricultural production, we would consider it serious trouble I think. Yet there were those who just a short time ago were trying to argue that there was no salmon problem.

     There is a whole host of things we do that impact salmon and human activities that have created the problem. However, in the background, in addition to habitat degradation is a long term natural fluctuation in productivity or natural changes in climate.

     The Pacific salmon fisheries of Oregon, Washington and California peaked around 1900, which was a period of high productivity. Starting in the 1920s, 30s, and lasting into the 50s was a period of low productivity. (These were also the dust bowl years.) Salmon productivity improved in the 1960s, 70s, extending in some cases up to the early 1980s. Now we're sliding into the next trough.

ER: There is a natural cycle or rhythm to salmon populations. Is there any way to distinguish between how much of this first trough in the 1930s was man made and how much was natural fluctuation?

JL: No. Man definitely accentuated it, I'm convinced of that. But since we do not have any earlier comparative information, there's really no way to answer that question. When we came out of that trough, the Columbia River chum salmon, for example, collapsed and never did recover.

ER: That is when we were putting dams on the Columbia.

JL: Yes. However Oregon coastal coho salmon collapsed during the trough of 1930-1950, and those stocks did not recover either. The coastal coho appeared to recover because of an increase in the size and effectiveness of hatchery programs. The hatchery program masked the lack of recovery in coho.

     The troughs or natural low production periods are accentuated by human activities. Now we're moving into another trough. Given the number of petitions for protection of salmon stocks under the Endangered Species Act and the unprecedented fishery closures, I doubt anybody would argue anymore that the decline in this trough is worse than the last one.

     When Governor Lowry talks about this being a natural disaster, that's true up to a point. We are in a period of natural low productivity, but the salmon have contended with those cycles for a long time. In addition to a natural change in the climate patterns which influences salmon productivity, there are a lot of adverse impacts due to human activities which are greatly accentuating the natural effects.

ER: What detrimental effects do hatchery runs have on natural populations?  

JL: Hatcheries, and the blind optimism with which we have pursued them, created the illusion that we could have our cake and eat it too. The goal of the hatchery programs throughout most of their history has been to replace salmon production lost due to habitat degradation. Hatcheries do contribute fish to the fisheries, they have made a contribution, but they absolutely failed to meet that goal.  They have not by any stretch of the imagination been able to make up for lost habitat.

     Hatcheries allowed compromises and allowed politicians and administrators to look the other way when habitat was being destroyed. In the early years, up to 1960, few hatchery fish survived after release. We didn't know much about disease treatments or nutrition requirements. In the early 1960s we overcame some of those technical problems and hatchery fish started surviving and producing large returns. They generated great fisheries. The problem is there were wild fish mixed in among the hatchery fish. The mixed hatchery-wild fisheries allowed the overharvest of the wild populations. That is the second effect that hatcheries had on wild salmon production.

     The third impact hatcheries have had on wild fish is genetic interaction. We inadvertently domesticated the hatchery populations of salmon in ways that made them less fit to survive in the natural environment. Then when they strayed into natural spawning areas and spawned with wild fish, the offspring were not as fit and they were not able to survive and contribute to production as well as their wild counterparts.

ER: How good is the science for the genetic interaction of hatchery fish on wild runs?

JL: It's pretty strong. Does the interaction between hatchery and wild fish reduce productivity? One way to approach this question is to weigh the existing evidence for or against. By far, the published information points to reduced productivity. Our hatcheries have been creating problems. That does not mean that they have to continue creating problems.

ER: Is there a way to manage salmon hatcheries so they would not interfere with wild populations.

JL: There have been a few serious attempts. For example, Elk River Hatchery in Oregon made one of the earliest attempts to operate a hatchery in a way that is compatible with natural production, so hatchery production actually adds to natural production rather than replaces it. The jury is still out as to whether they were successful. There are other more recent attempts to build hatchery programs that are ecologically and genetically sensitive. The Northeast Oregon supplementation program and the Yakima program are examples. However when you attempt to change an institution that has been around for 110 years, it is not easy.

ER: What institution are you talking about?

JL: The hatcheries. People have asked me why it's so hard to change the hatchery programs, particularly as we collect information which shows a need for change.  I tell them it is because most of the needed changes involve not simply rearranging concrete but changing human behavior patterns.  And that's difficult.

     Ecological and genetic diversity help stabilize salmon production.  And when production is based on a few large hatchery programs, both the genetic and ecological diversity is reduced. The result is salmon production is much more vulnerable to productivity cycles and human impacts. For example, an Oregon study showed that during low ocean upwelling (upwelling is an indicator of ocean productivity), hatchery coho are affected much more severely than wild fish.

ER: Why did we replace wild salmon runs with an artificial system of hatcheries?

JL:  The development of hatcheries, particularly through the first half of this century, was consistent with our economic and our scientific thinking - a strictly mechanistic/reductionist approach to management. Hatcheries were also an excellent fit to the dominant industrial economic model. Hatcheries were fish factories, large centralized production facilities producing a standardized product. We could make salmon the same way we made television sets.

     Hatcheries were also consistent with the concept of markets. If you control production through a hatchery, then you can supply fish to the market at the right time, the right place and the right species. The catchable trout program is the best example of the influence of market thinking. Trout (the product) was delivered to the consumer. The stream became a mere stage prop.

ER: What can we do to maintain the viability of the wild salmon runs?

JL: First, we need to revise our traditional short-term thinking. We need to accept the fact that recovery, at least to the extent that we can achieve it, is going to be a long-term process. Politicians need to resist the temptation to "buy" a short-term fix, declare success, then go home. Salmon restoration needs real commitment for the long term. There are things we can do in the short term, and some of those are being addressed by initiatives that are coming out of the federal and state level. But those short term projects are not going to solve the problem. We must enforce existing protective statutes, improve them where necessary, then let the natural healing process take place.

     We will have to nurture the recovery, the return to health of our ecosystems. To me, that is what ecosystem management is about. The traditional watershed management partitioned the resources among different economic activities, salmon, timber, irrigation, grazing, power production and so on. Each pursued their economic goals independent of the needs of others.

     To bring about real recovery, all the economic interests are going to have to get together and approach restoration from a common perspective. Ecosystem management must include more than just the salmon. Bringing all the economic interest together will be hard.  But that's going to have to happen if we're going to develop an ecosystem perspective.  

     We are in a period of transition from thinking of natural resources strictly as commodities and ecosystems as merely warehouses for those commodities, to the view that natural resources have than commodity value and ecosystems have to stay healthy if we're going to maintain the production.

     We should revisit a decision we made back in the 1930s. That decision was to emphasize hatcheries to make up for lost habitat. There was an alternative. In 1892, there was a call for the establishment of "salmon parks" or rivers whose habitat was set aside and protected for salmon production.  That idea was mentioned again several times in later years. But because we had such blind optimism for hatchery technology, we decided to take that pathway and it cut us off from further consideration of the salmon park.

     We need to reconsider the concept of salmon parks for two reasons. One is simply to allow those basins to heal and preserve their natural salmon production. Secondly, we're going to pass on to future generations a depleted resource. At the very least, we should pass on to future generations several classrooms (salmon parks) where they can learn how to restore salmon. Because all our streams are so degraded it will take several decades to produce a living classroom.

ER: What would it involve to restore some river drainages to their natural condition?

JL: Substantial riparian zones must be set aside and left alone. Hatchery supplementation must be monitored and implemented in ways that are ecologically and genetically compatible with natural production. Riparian zones need to recover to old-growth conditions. At the very least, we should set aside the riparian zone in a few watersheds in each ecological zone, particularly in low elevation areas on the interior, as living classrooms.

ER: I would call that idea a strategic reserve or a holding action.

JL: We have called it a living legacy. Large riparian zone set aside and allowed to mature to the natural conditions salmon adapted to. Once trees in the riparian zone mature, selective harvesting for old growth may be allowed. The point is to get salmon recovery and then build a natural classroom where sustainable management can be developed.

ER: The recovery plans for the northern spotted owl include protected riparian zones in the owls range to benefit both owls and salmon. Are we going to have to extend those zones further down into lowlands to meet salmon recovery needs?

JL: Yes. They should be extended into the low elevation reaches in most streams. Loss of connectivity in salmon habitat does not get addressed as much as it deserves. Migration is a major feature in the life history of Pacific salmon. Connectivity, the ability to move freely between habitats, can be an important production bottleneck. The upper reaches in many streams still have undisturbed salmon habitat but the lower reaches have been drastically altered. The remaining habitat in those reaches is degraded and the ability to safely migrate through is lost except for narrow time slots. The migrating restriction limits life history diversity and productivity. I believe the lower reaches of rivers were a major contributor to productivity in pre-development years.

ER:  You said the lower elevation reaches contributed to higher productivity?

JL: I think they were a very important factor in the overall productivity.

ER:  You mean in terms of a place for the salmon to live before they go out to sea?

JL: Yes. The ability of salmon to move through or rear in lower river reaches promoted life history diversity which ensured productivity and stability of the salmon.

ER: What do you mean by life history diversity?

JL: Life history is simply the pattern of a salmon's life: when it migrates and spawns, where and when it rears in the river, its age when it enters the ocean, etc. Some chinook salmon populations may exhibit three to five or more different patterns. Life history diversity allows the individuals within a population to efficiently partition the habitat. You can bet that in a large healthy salmon population, the individual salmon are not all doing the same thing at the same time.

     Habitat is the template that permits the expression of life history diversity. So to maintain diverse life histories, the stream has to have a diverse habitat template.  Habitat templates have lost a lot of their diversity shortly after Euroamericans began moving into the Northwest.

ER: How have habitats lost their diversity?

JL: They have lost structure. When Euroamericans arrived in the Northwest, river channels, particularly in the lower reaches, were a tangle of logs, side channels and wetlands. In order to promote river transport of logs, gillnet fisheries and transportation, the rivers were cleared of all structures (logs). In fact, stream clearance crews were still working until the 1960s. We also put in dikes and levees and drained wetlands. That does not leave many places for salmon to hide and grow as they work their way downstream.

ER: Right. We put in dikes and levies.

JL: Yes. So that the habitat templates have lost a lot of diversity. All the diking and levies have tended to reduce diversity. They don't leave many places for little salmon to hide and grow as they're working their way downstream.

Copyright 1994 Environmental Review