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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Pulling for Salmon

Air Date: Week of February 24, 1995

In Washington State, dozens of volunteer groups are donating their time to help restock salmon in local streams. Terry FitzPatrick from member station KPLU examines how this human effort to reshape nature's fate is faring.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Coho salmon may be added to the nation's Endangered Species List later this month. And if that happens, recovery efforts could lead to cutbacks in logging, fishing, agriculture, power generation, and urban development throughout the Northwest. But nearly lost in the debate over what should or shouldn't be done to save the salmon are the efforts of some private citizens who are already taking action to help the fish survive. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Terry FitzPatrick reports on one such project and the obstacles that may stand in its way.

(Flowing water)

FITZPATRICK: This is Eagle Creek, a crystal-clear, spring-fed stream in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Overhead is a lush canopy of pine and alder. The banks are covered with moss and ferns. It's prime spawning habitat for cohoe salmon. But like many Northwest streams, coho haven't spawned here in decades.

LEBON: The river was starting to cut into some farmland, and to protect farmland they built, they diked it off. With no way for the fish to get in and out of it.

FITZPATRICK: Jeff Lebon is an oceanographer and commercial fisherman. He leads a crew of volunteers who are trying to reintroduce salmon to Eagle Creek.

LEBON: We would have hopefully a self-sustaining salmon run back in the spring, that would go on and rebuild itself. And that's the whole idea of the project. So, grab a shovel and go for it.

(Shoveling)

FITZPATRICK: For 4 years, volunteers from the commercial fishing industry and a sport fishing club have been restoring salmon habitat on Eagle Creek and 2 other streams nearby. They've removed obstructions that block the fish from getting to sea, and they rebuilt small pools where young fish can grow.

(Pipes being dragged)

FITZPATRICK: They've also built a small fish hatchery out of plastic pipes and a backyard swimming pool. Volunteer Paul Wells.

WELLS: You know, I want to be able to catch a fish. I want my son to be able to catch a fish. But if you don't come back and restore creeks, put fish back in the creeks, and get the creeks self-sustaining, there won't be any fish for you to catch or anybody else to catch or just to look at. (Grunts, that's it) Just real careful.

FITZPATRICK: This is egg-planting day. The state has donated 135,000 salmon eggs from its hatchery nearby. The eggs are bright orange, about the size of small pearls.

LEBON: They're not too fragile; you'd be surprised. As long as you don't squish them you could drop them about 6 feet up on concrete and they'll bounce okay.

MAN: No kidding.

LEBON: All right, get 'em all out of here.

FITZPATRICK: Volunteers put the eggs in trays to incubate.

LEBON: Real carefully, spread 'em out...

FITZPATRICK: When they're born, the fish will live in the hatchery pool for about a year. Then, they'll be released to begin their precarious journey to the sea. If they survive, they'll return to spawn on Eagle Creek when they're 3 years old. There are dozens of volunteer groups running hatcheries and improving habitat throughout Washington. Altogether, they release about 15 million fish: a small number compared to the 250 million produced at the huge hatcheries run by the state. But there's a key difference between the state and the volunteer efforts. Volunteers work on small streams, where state officials say they cannot afford to go.

KOLB: We don't have the manpower or the money, and even if we did we couldn't do it as effectively as people living out there can.

FITZPATRICK: Rich Kolb of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department provides technical assistance and small financial grants to the volunteer groups. The idea is to help the fish while avoiding the image of Big Brother government.

KOLB: People don't want government on their property telling them what to do and how to do it, whereas a local person can come in, a neighbor, and they're much, much more receptive and willing to listen and learn and help.

FITZPATRICK: Local landowners support the Eagle Creek project and there's been no public opposition. However, there has been trouble. Last year, the hatchery was sabotaged. Someone removed the screens that keep salmon hatchlings safely inside. Jeff Lebon.

LEBON: And it was very deliberate. The screens had been thrown out in the middle. And you see how they're wired there? They unwired them so we knew it was not an animal; it was definitely a person.

FITZPATRICK: Lebon estimates that 40,000 fish were killed, and he says it wasn't an isolated incident.

LEBON: Every enhancer project like this in the past, such as just egg boxes or incubators, has always been vandalized. It has never been able to go through the season without being either shot by bullets, piped, kicked, or something.

FITZPATRICK: No one was ever arrested in the Eagle Creek vandalism, and it remains a mystery. The incident was a setback to the Eagle Creek volunteers, but a much bigger battle may lie ahead. A battle which could trap the project in the middle of a strategic debate over salmon management. Many biologists think large salmon hatcheries are harming the dwindling supply of wild fish. Professor James Carr directs the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Washington.

CARR: The addition of hatchery fish is likely to cause more damage than benefit for a couple of reasons. First of all, the things that happen in hatcheries change the biology of the fish. Essentially, they breed fish with bad behavior, if you will. And finally, the appearance that we are doing a good thing makes members of society concerned about salmon feel like they're working towards a solution, when in fact they're not working towards a solution.

FITZPATRICK: And that presents a real irony for projects like the one at Eagle Creek. Many salmon advocates want to shut down hatcheries and focus instead on helping wild salmon establish their own self-supporting populations. That's ultimately the purpose of the Eagle Creek project. But because it relies initially on a small hatchery, the volunteers fear it, too, could be forced to close. An Endangered Species listing could protect salmon habitat, but could also require all hatcheries to justify their existence. And Jeff Lebon fears that could smother his tiny project in Federal paperwork.

LEBON: Basically, it stonewalls us and it gets the private sector, volunteer sector completely out of the picture.

FITZPATRICK: And in a time of increasing distrust of government, Lebonsays that could be counterproductive.

(Sloshing through water)

FITZPATRICK: Despite the discouraging developments, the Eagle Creek volunteers got a big boost this January. It came from the coho salmon themselves.

LEBON: You see the depression upstream, right there, and the rocks piled up back here? That really looks like there was some digging going on there.

MAN: Uh huh.

FITZPATRICK: Out of the 10,000 fish born at the Eagle Creek hatchery in 1992, volunteers spotted 8 who came back and dug gravel nests to spawn. They're the first fish to spawn here in 4 decades. Although it's only 8 fish, the volunteers say it's a start. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick reporting.

 

 

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