Opinion

New hatchery is a blessing to many | Being Frank

I was excited to attend a groundbreaking ceremony recently for a new state salmon hatchery at Voights Creek near Orting.

The new facility replaces a hatchery – nearly wiped out by floods in 2009 – that has been operating on the creek since the early 1900s. Close tribal and state cooperation made the new hatchery a reality. It will be the first new state salmon hatchery built in the past couple of decades.

I'm glad that the old hatchery is being replaced. We can't afford to lose any more of them or the salmon they provide, despite what you might be hearing these days.

Closing the Voights Creek Hatchery would mean the annual loss of 1.6 million fall chinook salmon and 780,000 coho salmon. That's in addition to 400,000 more fall chinook and 100,000 additional coho that are transferred from the facility to the Puyallup Tribe's hatchery for release into the Puyallup River each year.

Hatcheries have been getting a bad rap lately. Tribal, state and federal hatcheries are under fire from lawsuits filed by a few extremist groups who think that all wild salmon and steelhead are good and all hatchery-produced fish are evil. I'm not sure what they're trying to achieve.

All fishermen – Indian and non-Indian – rely on hatcheries, because fisheries are supported by them. Some hatcheries produce fish for harvest. Others serve as nurseries to supplement weak wild stocks.

It's really pretty simple. No hatcheries equals no fishing. For anyone. That's unacceptable to the treaty Indian tribes in western Washington, because our constitutionally protected fishing right depends on salmon being available for harvest.

Hatchery opponents argue that when hatchery fish breed with wild fish, their offspring don't survive as well. But research by the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho has shown that's not always the case.

The bottom line is that we will need salmon hatcheries for as long as lost and damaged habitat prevents salmon recovery. We would prefer not to rely so heavily on hatcheries, but today more than half of the chinook and coho harvested by Indian and non-Indian fishermen come from hatcheries.

We've become dependent on the fish produced in hatcheries because we are losing the battle to recover naturally spawning salmon and their habitat. I think we are going to rely on hatcheries for quite some time, because salmon habitat is being lost and damaged faster than it can be restored and protected, and the trend isn't improving.

While we celebrate this year the 40th anniversary of the Boldt decision in U.S. v. Washington, we're also marking the 40th anniversary of the federal Endangered Species Act. The ESA is supposed to help recover threatened wild salmon stocks, but that's not happening because the law is not being used to protect salmon habitat and ensure that recovery plans are being implemented.

That's why we are also marking the 15th anniversary of the 1999 ESA listing of Puget Sound chinook, Hood Canal summer chum and Lake Ozette sockeye. Puget Sound steelhead were added to the list in 2007. While some stocks of Hood Canal summer chum are showing signs of recovery, Puget Sound coho are now a candidate species for listing.

Even closing all hatcheries and ending all fisheries would not bring back the salmon. That's because fixing and protecting habitat are the most important components of salmon recovery. From the beginning to the end of the salmon's life cycle, it is the overall quantity and quality of habitat that determine the strength of the resource.

It's one thing to restore salmon habitat. It is another to protect it. If we want salmon in our world to thrive once again, we must do both.

Billy Frank, Jr. is chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission (www.nwifc.org).

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