For this installment of “Organization of the Month,” we sat down with Native Fish Society’s Executive Director, Mark Sherwood. Native Fish Society engages in the protection of–yes, you guessed it, native, wild fish in the Pacific Northwest, specifically. Historically, the Pacific Northwest supported breathtaking runs of salmon and steelhead. Human intervention and other activities, however, have crippled those salmon and steelhead runs. Native Fish Society works to restore and protect these once-prolific runs through advocacy, science, and volunteer support. Follow along for the full interview!
Flylords: For fly fishermen and women native fish are fundamental to our sport and, at times, drive us crazy. Can you talk about how and why Native Fish Society started?
NFS: Native Fish Society was founded in 1995 by renowned conservationist Bill Bakke and a small group of passionate advocates who celebrated the importance of naturally reproducing, locally adapted fish to the health of Pacific Northwest watersheds and communities. Before retiring from Native Fish Society in 2016, Bill worked in fish conservation for nearly 50 years as a prolific writer, authoring over 100 articles for sporting, news, and scientific journals. Bill focused Native Fish Society’s wild fish advocacy efforts on the Columbia River and its tributaries, submitting comments and testimony on fisheries management and hatchery operations. In the early days of the Native Fish Society, the Columbia River’s wild salmon and steelhead were experiencing unparalleled declines. To revive wild fish to abundance, Bill led petitions to protect Snake River Chinook Salmon, Oregon Coastal Coho Salmon and Columbia River Coho Salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act. Bill’s advocacy inspired generations of anglers and advocates to speak up for the diversity and resilience of wild fish and the importance of their backyard homewaters.
Flylords: There are so many complexities involved in the conservation and restoration of native species in the PNW. How does Native Fish Society navigate these issues and advocate effective solutions?
NFS: In every river where we work, we sit down with local volunteer River Stewards and explore the answers to these questions: What are the barriers holding back native fish in your homewaters? What guidance does the science provide for identifying solutions to these barriers? How can Native Fish Society support, inspire, and empower community members to carry forward these solutions? The complexity of this work often comes with finding solutions that communities can embrace and live with. This is why our volunteer programs are about building partnerships with local community members, who are the driving force behind durable conservation efforts.
Flylords: What are the four H’s and how do they affect native fish?
NFS: Hydropower dams, Habitat loss, overHarvest (or overfishing), and Hatcheries are commonly described as the four root causes of wild fish declines, or in short, the four H’s.
Hydropower dams and instream barriers physically block fish from accessing upstream habitats. For example, in the Columbia River Basin, which drains an area the size of France, dams block over 55% of spawning and rearing habitats. Habitat loss includes a laundry list of actions that pollute water and reduce the ability for streams to naturally sustain native fish. In the Pacific Northwest, over 90% of extinct or declining native fish populations are associated with habitat loss. Overharvest harms wild fish populations by reducing the number and diversity of fish left to spawn and support future runs. Hatcheries manufacture cookie-cutter salmon that reduce the abundance and survival of wild fish, while siphoning billions of tax dollars dedicated to supporting salmon. Between Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and California, 660 million baby hatchery salmon and steelhead were released into rivers in 2019. This huge number of hatchery fish compete for food and habitat with wild fish, reducing the survival rate of wild fish. When hatchery fish return from the ocean and spawn with wild fish, they weaken the next generation’s ability to survive in the wild. Last, unlike the other H’s, hatcheries are advanced as a solution to the other H’s. For example, hatcheries were built to make up for habitat lost to dams or unsustainable development and to prop up fisheries that overharvested wild fish. To revive wild fish, we need to invest in habitat, not hatcheries. Native Fish Society exists to build the groundswell of public support needed to make the transition from dwindling hatchery populations and degraded rivers to abundant wild fisheries and free-flowing rivers.
Flylords: Are the four H’s the only threats to native fish species?
NFS: Cold-water native fish species like salmon, steelhead, and trout face a fifth H – Heat. Climate change is a growing and urgent threat to native fish. Already, April snowpack in the Cascade Mountains is on average 20% less than it was in 1950. Climate forecasting for the Northwest predicts longer and hotter summers, less snow, and potentially more rain. In addition to supporting national and international efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, anglers can help safeguard their fisheries in the Northwest by protecting cold-water habitats from development and ensuring that enough water is available instream for fish. Anglers can also carry a thermometer to take data on their local river and opt to not fish when water temperatures exceed 65F.
Flylords: Rivers are the lifeblood of our ecosystems and native fish. Tell us about the River Steward Program.
NFS: We believe it takes dedicated people, with deep connections to place to steward the Northwest’s native fish and home-waters. Through our River Steward Program, Native Fish Society empowers passionate advocates with the science and policy information and the community organizing strategies necessary to run effective conservation campaigns. Today, we have 70 place-based volunteer River Stewards, who safeguard their home-waters and protect over 4,000 stream miles in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California. River Stewards, their communities, and coalitions helped protect 101,000 acres of public lands in Oregon from strip mining, safeguarded hundreds of free-flowing river miles from dams, created a system of eight wild steelhead rivers in Washington, and partnered with commercial fishers and tribal nations to develop sustainable wild fisheries in British Columbia.
Flylords: More often than not, conservation news relating to fish is more grim than cheerful. Can you highlight some native fish success stories?
NFS: One of the best native fish success stories is Coho Salmon on the Oregon Coast. At one time Coho Salmon were immensely abundant along the sloughs and backchannels of Oregon’s coastal streams. Biologists estimate that pre-European colonization, 1-2 million wild Coho Salmon returned every year to Oregon’s coastal rivers. Like so many wild fish populations, overfishing, too many hatchery fish, and habitat loss wreaked havoc on these fish. The low point was in 1999 when just 30,000 Coho Salmon returned to 280 miles of coastline – a decline of 97%.
Fearing the worst, fish conservationists pushed hard to protect Coho Salmon under the Endangered Species Act and succeeded in the early 2000s. To aid wild recovery, hatcheries reduced their output of juvenile fish by 95%. Open ocean commercial fisheries were scaled back to protect wild fish. Coastal community members came together and formed watershed councils to restore habitat damaged by logging, agriculture, and development. After two decades of hard work, Oregon Coastal Coho are back on the landscape with runs as high as 350,000 wild Coho Salmon returning in a single year. The fact that Coho Salmon were able to bounce back from such dire levels is a testimony to the resilience of wild fish and the dedication of local communities to see them return.
Flylords: PNW Salmon and Steelhead species are too commonly found on the Endangered Species list. Care to touch on how these species found themselves in such perilous states?
NFS: Starting in the 1850s politicians, industrialists, and scientists in the Pacific Northwest bet on salmon hatcheries to produce more fish than rivers could naturally. They believed that industrial salmon aquaculture would enable rivers to be dammed for power, forests to be cleared for lumber and farmland, and that commercial fishers would not have to limit their catches – that the Pacific Northwest could have abundant fish without rivers or regulation. Unfortunately, these folks had little understanding for salmon biology and the limitations of salmon hatcheries. The massive decline in salmon and steelhead seen today is the result of this mistaken view of what salmon, salmon ecosystems, and human communities reliant upon salmon need to survive.
Flylords: Going off the last question–Evolutionary Significant Units of Salmon and Steelhead are listed under the ESA, meaning distinct sub-species. Can you shed some light on what is going on with Spring Chinook on the Oregon Coast?
NFS: In nature, species diversify to survive. As advocates for the revival of abundant wild fish, we often work to safeguard diversity. One example of this is our current petition to conserve Oregon Coastal Spring Chinook Salmon under the Endangered Species Act.
Chinook Salmon, also known as King Salmon, are the largest of all Pacific Salmon species, with some fish historically weighing up to 100 pounds. While all Pacific Salmon spawn in the fall, Spring Chinook Salmon are unique in that they return from the ocean in the spring, swim long distances up their home rivers, and rest in deep pools before spawning in the fall. To survive their long freshwater fast (they stop eating once they return to freshwater) Spring Chinook Salmon store extra energy in the form of massive fat reserves. All of this fatty energy makes Spring Chinook Salmon arguably the hardest fighting salmon pound for pound and the most delicious table fare. Unfortunately, Spring Chinook Salmon populations have dwindled along the Oregon Coastal Evolutionary Significant Unit (ESU) which includes all of the coastal rivers from the Sixes River on the south coast to the Necanicum River in the north coast.
At one time, nearly every major Oregon coastal river with a significant estuary supported a run of Spring Chinook Salmon, but now only three runs remain. One of the main reasons for the inaction was that Spring Chinook Salmon were thought to be so genetically similar to Fall Chinook Salmon (which are more abundant and also return to Oregon’s coastal rivers) that biologists believed that if Spring Chinook Salmon went extinct in a river, they could re-evolve from the Fall Chinook Salmon population. In fact, this is the very argument made by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1994 when they rejected a petition to protect Oregon Coast Spring Chinook Salmon as a Threatened Species.
In 2019, Native Fish Society and our partners at Umpqua Watersheds and the Center for Biological Diversity utilized new genetic information about Spring Chinook Salmon to conserve these fish under the Endangered Species Act. Through new techniques, geneticists at UC Davis located the area of the DNA sequence of Spring Chinook Salmon connected to their unique adaptations. It turns out that this genetic mutation happened only once in the last 15 million years! It’s now believed that this early return adaptation started in one location and radiated out from the natural straying that occurs in all populations to take advantage of unique habitats found in rivers across the Pacific Northwest. Why does this matter? If a population of Spring Chinook Salmon went extinct, they would not re-emerge from the Fall Chinook Salmon which share their river. As a result, Spring Chinook Salmon need to be safeguarded as well as their special headwater habitats if we want them to exist on the landscape.
Native Fish Society and partners await a decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service on whether or not to grant threatened status to Oregon Coastal Spring Chinook Salmon. A similar petition to safeguard Spring Chinook Salmon in the Klamath River was submitted by the Karuk Tribal Nation and the Salmon River Restoration Council.
Flylords: If you don’t mind, could we spend a little more time on hatcheries and their effect on wild salmonids? I think there is often confusion in the angling community on the cumulative impact of hatchery programs.
NFS: Our goal at the Native Fish Society is to let nature run its course with our native fish populations. This means providing fish with healthy habitats and supporting fisheries that respect the biological needs of native fish populations. These actions best serve the true superpowers of salmon and steelhead, which is adaptation and resilience. As conditions change native fish continuously adapt to their homewaters. Future runs of wild fish favor those able to seek food, avoid predators, and find a mate. This natural relationship between salmon and rivers is how they have persisted for hundreds of thousands of years enduring volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, ice ages, landslides, and fires. In nature, it’s true that many young fish die. But those that survive, pass along their successful traits to the next generation and provide them the best chance for survival. With this grounding in salmon and steelhead biology, let’s talk about the cumulative impact of hatchery programs on wild fish.
At a foundational level, hatcheries break the natural relationship between fish and rivers. Instead of adapting to stream conditions, salmon and steelhead adapt to the hatchery’s concrete holding tanks, steady meals, and crowded conditions. A recent genetic study found that the offspring of wild fish raised in a hatchery exhibited over 700 genetic changes in a single generation. This research demonstrates how quickly and significantly fish change in a hatchery. As a result of these adaptations, hatchery fish survive better in the hatchery environment than wild fish. But wild fish survive twice as well in the wild as hatchery fish. The trouble is hatchery fish are released into the wild. If adult hatchery fish spawn with wild fish, they pass along their traits to the next generation, weakening the ability of their young to survive in the wild. If more than 5% of the adult fish spawning in the wild are from a hatchery, they can erode a wild population’s ability to survive.
Hatchery fish are also produced in mind blowing numbers, which threaten to overwhelm wild ecosystems. For example, hatchery Chinook Salmon are released in such large numbers in the Columbia River they can outnumber wild chinook salmon 31:1. This flood of hatchery fish consume food, occupy habitat, attract predators, and eat other juvenile wild fish. Even if you’re great at survival, it’s tough to beat out 31 other fish ready to eat you and your lunch!
The impact of salmon hatcheries extends into the marine environment as well. Data from the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission show that Canada, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States released 5.5 billion salmon and steelhead from hatcheries in 2019. All of these hatchery fish are now altering the ecosystem of the North Pacific as they feed on krill, squid, and forage fish species. Scientists are concerned that other species including wild salmon, sea birds, and even whales could be negatively affected as a result of competition for feed with hatchery fish.
The last point worth noting is that hatchery infrastructure, operations, and management is expensive. Pacific Northwest state, federal, and tribal governments spend well over $290 million a year to produce and manage hatchery fish in the region. The cost per fish caught in the fishery can range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. For example, on the Clackamas River in Oregon three hatchery facilities released 737,000 hatchery Spring Chinook Salmon in 2014 for a cost of $380,000. In 2019, just 239 of these fish returned as adult hatchery Spring Chinook Salmon. Of these 239 fish only 10 were actually caught by sport anglers – the rest swam back to traps at the hatchery or at a nearby dam. As a result, each hatchery Spring Chinook Salmon caught by anglers cost $38,000 to produce. Especially, when funding is in dire need for protecting and restoring habitat critical for clean water and to revive the Clackamas’s threatened wild salmon – anglers and tax payers need to start questioning how their tax dollars are being invested to create abundant wild fish.
What’s even more concerning is that now the state of Oregon is asking the National Marine Fisheries Service if it can collect threatened wild Spring Chinook Salmon in the Clackamas River to improve the return of its ailing hatchery population. You read that right, Oregon wants to remove threatened wild fish from the natural spawning population where they contribute to recovery, in order to save a hatchery program designed to boost fisheries and make up for habitat loss for wild salmon. When will start giving back to wild fish instead of taking from them?
It’s a lot to take into consideration, more than most of us do when we decide to put a hatchery fish on the barbeque.
For Native Fish Society’s part, we engage hatchery issues by establishing more and larger wild fish management areas (rivers or collections of rivers without hatchery fish releases). We identify and reform the hatcheries that create the most harm to fish and people. We work to highlight and develop sustainable wild fisheries. We shift public investment in fish conservation to solve the root causes of wild fish declines: overfishing, habitat loss, and dams without passage for fish
A gathering to advocate for the closure of the Leaburg Hatcher on Oregon’s McKenzie RiverFlylords: Anything else you want to touch on? Also, what are some ways Flylords’ readers can get involved and support Native Fish Society?
NFS: As a fellow angler, it’s my hope that through our community’s passion and drive, we can stand together and support the needs of the fish and rivers that give us so much. Even in these most challenging times, I’m reminded again and again that love for rivers and fish can unite people and bring about a better place to live and play.
We invite you to get involved and support our work however you’re able. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram. Sign up for our weekly newsletter – Redd It – which provides a quick snapshot of news, actions, and happenings with Pacific Northwest native fish. If you’re able you can support us financially as a member or a donor. If you’ve got a skill or a talent you’d like to lend to our efforts send us an email about the Fellowship Program. If you live in the Pacific Northwest and are passionate about your backyard river get in touch about our River Steward Program.