A strong whiff of nostalgia haunts Return to the River. In 1941, Haig-Brown knew he was witnessing a fundamental change to the environment and the fishery. The Senator is, like the author, a fly fisherman and an adept naturalist who watches salmon probably more often than he catches them. But like so many, the Senator acquiesced to “progress.”
“For one more year they would spawn as they were meant to spawn, and fry and fingerlings would grow from their spawning as they were meant to grow, from the natural abundance of the river. And the rack might go out again or they might decide against using it another year. He played with his hopes, but he felt in his heart he was seeing the end of it, the last natural spawning of the chinooks that belonged to his river.”
Here we are today, 80 years later, with an upended environment and with a grim duty to look around, take our bearings, and say, “Well, where do we go from here?”
As Larkin wrote, clear goals are important. More fish, however, proved a simplistic, problematic, and greedy goal. Hatcheries are not cures for what ails Salmon Nation—they are interventions that, if used judiciously, may offer life support to a few patients. Sunsetting hatcheries because wild fish are thriving would be the ultimate success story.
To restore salmon populations requires a thoughtful, long-term vision. Habitat restoration is key, and in some instances a conservation hatchery that keeps distinct salmon populations alive during the long process of undoing extensive damage to watersheds. Also, across the board, policies that separate hatchery fish and wild fish could give the fish more breathing room in their habitats.
“It’s feasible,” Hilborn says. “You can move the run timing of a hatchery stock quite readily; it doesn’t take much selection to get them to come earlier or make them come later.”
To cleave apart wild from hatchery fish, and the different populations, would mean a fundamental shift in the style of commercial fishing, moving toward terminal fisheries, in which weirs or traps, rather than hooks and nets, catch fish in the river on their way home to spawn. Once standard practice from Alaska to Northern California and in Japan and Russia, weirs allow for more targeted fishing. On the lower Klamath River in Oregon and California, for instance, Indigenous managers erected a weir for 10 days during peak chinook migration, leaving it open at night to allow migration upriver to spawning grounds and to other communities. With weirs, fishers can aim for hatchery fish, identifiable by a clipped adipose fin. An experimental fish trap near the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon is a new take on the old technology, guiding fish into a trap where they can swim freely, and fishers can select which fish to harvest.