If Pacific Northwest salmon were still able to produce biologically and economically healthy runs without hatcheries, it’s safe to say there wouldn’t be much support for hatcheries. But this isn’t yet the case.

This statement encapsulates about year of debates that surrounded an extensive effort to study the continuing role of artificial fish propagation in the Columbia River watershed. The work was performed and criticism borne by the Hatchery Scientific Review Group under auspices of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. The council bears overall responsibility for managing the hydropower system in ways that best coexist with the natural environment.

There was considerable backlash this spring from fishing interests and tribes when word came that council staff advocated a cutback in hatchery production above Bonneville by more than 20 percent. As we noted at the times, in an unpredictable interplay with ocean conditions and other factors, these cuts would begin to choke salmon returns three years following implementation.

This takes place within the context of recent salmon seasons — expected to continue in 2015 — that are abundant by the relaxed definition of modern times. Recreational fishermen and the many businesses that cater to them have particularly benefited. Tribes affiliated with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission have celebrated considerable success in watersheds like the Yakima and Snake, using high-quality hatcheries to repopulate streams from which salmon had long been absent. Non-tribal commercial fishermen also continue to rely on hatchery salmon to whatever extent they can, considering growing restrictions on the Columbia’s mainstem.

There is, however, a good deal of sincere dissent about hatcheries from some biologists and wild-salmon advocates who have come to believe that human meddling in runs may degrade habitat and fish genetics or behavior.

In a Dec. 19 visit to Astoria, a council member and staff said they heard and responded to local concerns. They do not intend to prescriptively begin ending successful hatchery programs, which will continue to be a vital part of salmon strategies for the time being.

“The council defers to the agencies and tribes to define the scope and purpose(s) of the hatchery and fish propagation methods, as well as the appropriate management techniques, consistent with current and evolving scientific principles,” says the pre-publication version of the Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program 2014. While this falls short of being a full-throated endorsement of hatcheries, along with other language it is evident the council doesn’t intend to summarily abandon hatchery rearing until other approaches prove themselves.

Most people who follow this topic will agree things are far from perfect for salmon returns. Even with hatcheries, gradual watershed enhancements and other advances, runs remain perhaps 1/25th of what they were before dams and habitat destruction. If there are better solutions that don’t rely so much on hatcheries, we ought to be open to them. But we’re not there yet. It’s good see the council acknowledge this fact.

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