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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Point of No Return, Part III: Salmon Fishing, Part Two: In the Lab

Air Date: Week of

Terry FitzPatrick visits a genetics lab and a fish hatchery to explore the distinctions among salmon. Scientists and environmentalists say there's a big difference between fish that come from a hatchery and fish born in the wild, but others don't buy it.


CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Some scientists will tell you there's a big difference between a hatchery salmon and a wild one, and between an endangered run of wild salmon and another run that's doing fine. Others will tell you they don't buy it, that basically a salmon is a salmon is a salmon. Here's Living On Earth's Terry FitzPatrick again, with a close-up look at salmon science.

(A door is unlocked; fans)

FITZPATRICK: There's a large windowless room in Seattle that you might think of as the frozen seafood section of the National Marine Fisheries Service regional lab. Fifty freezers here are kept at 112 degrees below zero. Inside are plastic bags filled with salmon specimens from across the northwest.

(A bag crinkles)

WAPLES: Now this is a bag of chinook salmon from the Snake River. These are juveniles, known as parr. They were collected in their first year of life.

FITZPATRICK: Biologist Robin Waples uses these specimens to identify the genetic signature of different groups of salmon.

(Equipment whines)

FITZPATRICK: With specialized equipment, he tests chromosomes and proteins from the muscle, heart, liver, and eye. Dr. Waples says there's quite a difference between different types of fish.

WAPLES: Thinking about the different salmon species, chinook versus coho, sockeye, chum salmon, we can think of those in the same terms we think of differences between primate species. Humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, all of those species are closely related to about the same degree that we see for the different salmon species.

FITZPATRICK: Even within a salmon species, like chinook, there are distinct groups. Some chinook spawn in the spring, and some in the fall. Some at sea level near the mouth of a river, and some 6,000 feet up in the mountains hundreds of miles from the coast. These are genetic adaptations honed over thousands of years, and Dr. Waples says it's vital to preserve them.

WAPLES: The long-term viability of the species as a whole depends on the diversity of the populations that make up the species, the building blocks of the species. FITZPATRICK: The Endangered Species Act recognizes the importance of genetic diversity, and in the early 1990s scientists developed a framework for protecting distinct salmon populations. They decided to call each group an "Evolutionarily Significant Unit." They identified 46 such units among wild Pacific salmon, and so far have listed 26 of them as threatened or endangered. Dr. Waples says this was a big step, one that pushed the Endangered Species Act into new territory.

WAPLES: The Act allows listing of what they call distinct population segments as full species under the ESA. The problem is, the Endangered Species Act doesn't explain how we're supposed to determine when a population is, quote, "distinct. "

FITZPATRICK: Because the law is vague, salmon listings are open to attack by people unhappy with decisions made by the Fisheries Service. The agency is currently in federal court, defending just such a decision.

WOOSLEY: There is a tremendous amount of dispute over the science that was used for this particular listing. . .

FITZPATRICK: That's realtor Todd Woosley of the Common Sense Coalition, the group of farmers, ranchers, and land developers. They're challenging the listing of Puget Sound chinook, a listing with huge economic implications for Seattle and western Washington. Mr. Woosley contends the Fisheries Service, known in the northwest as NMFS, has made a mistake.

WOOSLEY: Rumor has it that NMFS' own staff biologist had a tremendous amount of disagreement over whether or not scientific criteria they used to list the fish was accurate, was valid. Did it meet the legal requirements of the ESA?

FITZPATRICK: In reaching its decision, the agency counted the number of wild chinook, but did not include the millions of chinook born in government hatcheries. Mr. Woosley claims there's no scientific reason to make that distinction. His coalition contends that hatchery fish and wild fish are identical. He says if the hatchery fish had been counted as wild, there wouldn't be an endangered species listing. However, scientists have long considered hatchery fish to be different from their wild cousins because of the different conditions in which they live.

(hatchery sounds, water flowing)

FITZPATRICK: Life inside a hatchery is nothing like life in the wild. This facility on the Lewis River is home to over three million hatchlings. They grow up in large concrete pools for up to a year before being released into the river.


FITZPATRICK: Every evening hatchery workers pour buckets of dried fish food into a hopper on a special truck. There's a pipe on the back of the truck that looks like a bazooka.


FITZPATRICK: The truck drives around spraying the food onto the surface of the water, and millions of fish begin to nibble simultaneously, a salmon feeding frenzy.

(Churning water)

FITZPATRICK: The hatchery is more like a hog farm than a natural stream. In the wild fish learn to hunt for food and hide from predators. Those that don't, don't live long enough to reproduce. But here in the hatchery the salmon are pampered. There's no natural selection to eliminate weaker fish from the gene pool. That's why biologists say hatchery salmon are different.


FITZPATRICK: According to Washington State's Fish and Wildlife director Jeff Koenings, facilities like this are a relic of an earlier time, before the Endangered Species Act. As development harmed natural salmon habitat and the wild fish began to decline, the answer was to build hatcheries.

KOENINGS: People were looking at hatcheries to replace wild stocks, rather than complement the wild stocks. The mindset was, we didn't need the wild fish.

FITZPATRICK: That mindset changed with the Endangered Species Act, which recognizes the values of animals living and reproducing in the wild. And Dr. Koenings says this facility's purpose has changed. He sees it as a bridge to keep the commercial fishing fleet in business until nature's bounty is eventually restored.

KOENINGS: We provide the opportunities for people to fish by producing fish that people can catch without worrying that they're harming the wild fish.

FITZPATRICK: Dr. Koenings says the realities of fish genetics are inescapable. And if we want wild salmon to recover, protecting their habitat is the way to do it. But science can't say whether or not people should make that happen. That's something that will ultimately be decided not in the laboratory, but in voting booths and in the courts.

(Running water)

FITZPATRICK: Before leaving the hatchery, I was wondering about something. If the differences between wild salmon and hatchery fish are so important, how do fishermen tell them apart? Jeff Koenings showed me how.

(Ambient voices)

FITZPATRICK: The salmon babies here are corralled into a special trailer when they're three inches long.

(Splashing water)

KOENINGS: We're putting them in a bath that puts them to sleep, so they can actually be handled. We clip off the adipose fin with these scissors, and we do about 100,000 fish a day. We've got about three. 3 million to do, so it's going to take about two months to do the entire operation.

FITZPATRICK: Does this hurt the fish?

KOENINGS: No. Because the fish are put to sleep, and they're just cutting off the adipose fin, and the actual impact on a fish nervous system is very minimal.

FITZPATRICK: They don't need that fin?

KOENINGS: No. The adipose fin is not necessary for their survival.

FITZPATRICK: Survival, that is, long enough to wind up as someone's dinner. For Living On Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick at Washington State's Lewis River Fish Hatchery.



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