FALL CREEK, Ore. — The forest is cloaked in mist, a chilling gray that drifts through the mossy tangle of limbs. It is barely dawn, but Ronald Yechout is wide awake, recounting the day he stumbled across the Fall Creek salmon massacre.
"Here," says Yechout, striding across a narrow bridge. One day in November 1998, Yechout stopped at Fall Creek while elk hunting to admire the annual return of coho salmon from the ocean. "The river was full of fish, absolutely crawling with them," he says.
Yechout (pronounced YEK-it) was delighted. But then he heard thunks and thwacks coming from the nearby fish hatchery. Walking over, he found hatchery workers with baseball bats, clubbing thousands of salmon to death.
What's going on? he asked.
The answer puzzled him, then outraged him, then launched him on a crusade that, three years later, has helped throw the Northwest's salmon-recovery effort into turmoil.
Along this creek in the Oregon woods, scientists tried to create a salmon that equaled the wild fish made by nature--and then, deciding they had failed, set about erasing their mistake with clubs.
Killing salmon to protect salmon? Yechout, standing by a creek now bereft of fish, thinks that this is no way to save a species.
In the 1800s, when industrial society arrived in the Pacific Northwest, the salmon began to disappear. Traps and nets intercepted millions of fish. Dams blocked rivers. Log drives scoured stream beds clean of fish eggs.
Nobody wished ill for the fish. The five species of Pacific salmon and their cousin, the steelhead, were a vital part of the economy. But there was no political will to stop development or overfishing, so Northwesterners staked their hopes on hatcheries, which promised to restore the lost abundance with no need to preserve habitat.
Hatcheries were supposed to take advantage of salmon's nomadic life cycle, keeping them safe from predators as eggs and young fish, then letting them fend for themselves during their migration to the sea and back.
Oregon's first salmon hatchery was built in 1877, and many others followed. For decades, however, few of them worked. It wasn't until the 1960s that hatcheries regularly yielded enough returning adults to supply the eggs needed for the next generation.
Techniques gradually improved, and hatcheries now prop up salmon populations all around the Pacific Rim. Hatcheries in Canada, Japan, Russia and the United States released up to 6 billion salmon annually during the last decade, accounting for about 25% of all young salmon entering the North Pacific.
In the Northwest, total salmon numbers are still a fraction of historic levels, even when hatchery fish are counted, but hatcheries have been credited with stopping or reversing the decline in many areas.
Although this has given fishermen something to catch, concern has grown that hatchery salmon are yet another deadly stress for wild salmon, which have continued to dwindle.
After months of being fed and protected from predators, young hatchery fish can be three times bigger than wild salmon when released, posing stiff competition for food. Crowds of hatchery fish can attract predators, which then gladly devour the wild fish too.
"The hatchery's call is that we can circumvent nature and still have our fish," says Bill Bakke, founder of the Native Fish Society in Oregon and a critic of hatcheries. "The big 'but' is that you can't replace the natural ecosystem with industrial technology. Nature's goal is survival. Our goal is to produce a commodity."
A hatchery fish, he contends, is more farm animal than wild creature. From the beginning, hatchery managers couldn't resist the temptation to tweak their wild stock in pursuit of better fish. They trucked eggs hundreds of miles from one river to another. They collected eggs from only the biggest, the brightest-colored or the earliest-returning adults.
Such practices are frowned upon now, but Bakke says that even the most conscientious hatcheries still steer salmon from their wild state. He cites studies indicating that hatchery salmon are less efficient foragers, less territorial, less fearful of predators, and less variable in size and shape. Some tend to seek food near the surface, waiting for pellets to fall from the sky as they did in the hatchery.
"Scientists have a name for it: domestication selection," Bakke says. "A hatchery will always change your salmon population so it doesn't do as well in a natural environment."
These are not new concerns. Over the past two decades, government biologists have reached consensus that naturally spawning stocks are essential to the salmon's survival, regardless of how hatchery fish are faring.
Since 1994, the federal government has listed 26 populations of West Coast salmon and steelhead as endangered or threatened. Coho salmon along the Oregon coast--the species produced at Fall Creek--were declared threatened in 1998, despite a vigorous hatchery program.