Siletz Tribes turn hatchery into a simulated natural habitat

By Bennett Hall
Lodgsden, Oregon (AP) 7-08

On Lincoln County’s Siletz Indian Reservation, old-timers still reminisce about coho salmon runs so massive you could practically walk across the river on the backs of the spawning fish.

Those days are long gone.

Like other salmon species up and down the West Coast, Oregon’s coastal coho stocks are in deep decline, pushed to the wall by more than a century of commercial fishing, dam building and habitat degradation. In April, the Pacific Fishery Management Council announced a sharply limited coho season, and in May, after a heated court battle, the fish were officially listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife once operated an aggressive hatchery program to try to shore up the coho’s dwindling numbers. But that operation has been cut back drastically in the face of high costs, disappointing results and objections from environmental groups that view hatcheries as a threat to wild fish populations.

Now the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians are trying a different approach to salmon recovery. The tribe has taken over a mothballed ODFW hatchery on the Siletz River system and turned it into simulated natural habitat where young coho can learn to fend for themselves until they’re ready to swim into the river’s main stem and on out to sea.

“We’re trying to raise a smarter fish,” said Mike Kennedy, the tribe’s natural resources manager.

Situated a few miles east of Logsden on Rock Creek, the Lhuuke Illahee Fish Hatchery isn’t really a hatchery at all. Instead, it takes one element of a traditional hatchery – the artificial rearing pond – and tries to make it as much like a natural pond as possible.

In a traditional hatchery, large numbers of salmon eggs are incubated and hatched. The young salmon, or fry, are kept in concrete rearing ponds and fed by hatchery technicians until they’re developed enough to survive on their own. These larger fish, the smolts, are then trucked to a river, where they’re released en masse to swim out to sea. The hope is that significant numbers will survive in the ocean and return to their home river system to spawn.

“That method was not very productive,” said Stan van de Wetering, a biologist who runs the Siletz Tribe’s fisheries program. “You got a lot of mortality.”

One reason for those losses, van de Wetering said, is that hatchery fish are used to being fed by people and that makes them easy marks for predators.

“If you’re at a hatchery, you walk up to a pond and a big school of fish comes up to you because they think you’re going to feed them,” he said. “Ours don’t do that.”

At Lhuuke Illahee (the name means “fish place” in Chinook) the Siletz used grant money to resurface an old asphalt-bottomed rearing pond and create a second pond with an earthen bottom. Then, instead of tossing handfuls of fish food pellets into the water, hatchery personnel stocked the ponds with wood chips and brush. The woody material breaks down in the water to create bacteria and algae.

“Bugs feed on that, and the fish eat the bugs,” van de Wetering said.

The brush and wood chips are replenished from time to time, and the carcasses of spawned-out adult fish – part of a salmon fry’s diet in the wild – are sometimes added to the mix.

In addition to jump-starting the food chain, the brush provides cover for the young fish, shielding them from herons, cormorants, kingfishers and other predators.

In another departure from hatchery norms, Lhuuke Illahee is used for rearing only naturally-spawned fish. The ponds are connected to nearby Rock Creek with an unscreened intake pipe and an open outflow channel, allowing fish to swim in on their own. They can also swim out to the main channel when they’re fully developed, a technique known as “volitional release.”

While coho is the main focus, the facility also supports other native species such as chinook salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout.

“We call it the hatchery, but that’s really sort of a misnomer,” van de Wetering said. “What we’ve done is we’ve created kind of an organized, optimal coho habitat.”

Salmon survival is tenuous under the best of circumstances. Only about 5 percent of coho salmon in undisturbed stream systems live long enough to reach the ocean. Returns from production hatcheries average between 0.5 and 10 percent.

“If you want to get thousands of fish coming back, you’ve got to release millions of them,” said David Noakes, director of the Oregon Hatchery Research Center. “It’s an enormous numbers game.”

But habitat is also a big part of the equation, Noakes said, and there is reason to believe that the approach taken by the Siletz really does produce hardier, better-adapted fish than traditional hatcheries.

One of the center’s researchers has done work on that question, Noakes said, and is launching experiments to determine precisely how natural rearing ponds may contribute to salmon survival.

In fact, habitat restoration is the linchpin of the state’s recovery strategy for coastal coho, said Bob Buckman, a district fish biologist with ODFW’s Newport office. The work of the Siletz supports what the agency is doing, including programs to encourage private landowners to work with watershed councils to restore spawning beds and rearing areas damaged by farming, logging and other activities in the Coast Range.

“That kind of habitat was lost due to the impacts of humans. We tend to settle those lowland areas, we drain the wetlands, we clear the streams, and that is damaging to the coho,” Buckman said.

“The run sizes can increase as we recover habitat. That is the key.”

Still, there are plenty of commercial and sport fishermen out there who would like to see the state ramp its coho hatchery program back up to where it was in the 1970s and ‘80s, when ODFW would release as many as 5 million coho smolts into coastal streams each year. Today, state hatcheries produce only about half a million coho smolts a year.

Even on the Siletz Reservation, the “habitat first, hatcheries last” approach advocated by van de Wetering is somewhat controversial.

Frank Simmons, a member of the Siletz Tribal Council, said the tribe wants to do its part to help native salmon runs recover, but the primary purpose of Lhuuke Illahee is to support the tribal fishery.

He’d like to see the facility converted into a production hatchery, and he could ultimately get his wish. Van de Wetering is in the fourth year of a five-year test period to demonstrate the benefits of his natural rearing ponds. At the end of that time, the tribal council will vote on what direction to go from there.

“Stan is a wild-fish man,” said Simmons. “Him and I kind of butt heads on it. I firmly believe in hatcheries because that’s the only kind of fish a fisherman can catch.”

Van de Wetering argues that recent weak runs are most likely the result of unfavorable ocean conditions, which go through cycles. He believes the 6,000 naturally reared smolts coming out of his ponds each year are helping to keep the Siletz River runs viable, even if the numbers of adult spawners that make it to the tribal fishing sites are disappointingly low.

Setting up a production hatchery might pump up the return numbers, he says, but it would also crank up the pressure on wild coho stocks. Competition for already-scarce food and habitat would increase, along with the twin threats of disease and dilution of the gene pool.

In the end, van de Wetering thinks, Lhuuke Illahee should be viewed as one small part of a coordinated effort to bring back wild coho stocks in Oregon’s Coast Range by rebuilding the natural systems that enabled the fish to thrive here in the first place.

“We’re not going to save the day, we’re not going to restore the salmon numbers (all by ourselves),” van de Wetering said. “I believe if we just improve the natural habitat we’re going to be best off.”

On the Net:

Pacific Fishery Management Council:

Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians: