Salmon and Steelhead Management in the Umpqua River

Jeffrey J. Dose – March 21, 2015

The following is a repeat of an article that was published nearly 7 years ago in, among other journals, the Osprey.  Written by current Steamboaters President, Jeff Dose, it is relevant today as well.  As has been displayed in previous articles, the issue of the status of wild salmon and steelhead in the Umpqua has raised great concern. The Steamboaters are contributing members of the North Umpqua Coalition, a group of committed conservationists, with several Board members participating.  Among the biggest issues the group is wrestling with is the imperative to stop the NU summer steelhead hatchery program, which is a contributing factor to the precipitous decline in the wild summer steelhead population.  This article presents many of the problems resultant from the hatchery program and offers some potential solutions.


Restoring abundant runs of wild Pacific salmon and anadromous trout, that is, fish spawned in natural habitat from wild parents, to the rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest and California bioregion has recently risen to the highest levels in the public’s consciousness. There is attention from the regions’ and nations’ top elected officials, the large expenditure of public and private funds, and almost daily coverage in the media.  What was once primarily the subject of commerce and professional debate in the region’s fishing ports and academic institutions has blossomed spectacularly into the social, political, and economic arenas of the entire region – and beyond.  This attention is certainly true here, in the Umpqua River basin, as well, where our fish runs support a multitude of recreational and commercial enterprises and where there is concern for some greatly diminished populations.

The Umpqua has one of the most diverse populations of wild salmon and searun trout in Oregon.  There exists six different races representing four species.  These races are further distributed in sub-basin specific populations (Mainstem, North, and South).  These are spring Chinook salmon (North and South), fall Chinook salmon (all three sub-basins), coho salmon (all three sub-basins), winter steelhead (all three sub-basins), summer steelhead (North), and searun cutthroat trout (North, others?).  In addition to the wild populations, for all but searun cutthroat and wild winter steelhead of the North Umpqua, there are artificially propagated populations from hatcheries.  The following narrative is a general discussion of salmon and searun trout, but most of it applies to most aspects of salmon and steelhead management in the Umpqua.

Natural History

Pacific salmon, broadly defined to include sea-run trout, are a truly remarkable and successful group of animals.  On an evolutionary time scale, at least for teleost (bony) fishes, they are considered fairly primitive.  The fossil record indicates that the first ancestors evolved about 45 million years ago, and that current species evolved two to six million years ago.  During this time period, they have endured numerous global-scale climate changes – upheavals that caused the extinction of an untold numbers of other species – yet they persisted, albeit not always in the same locales.

Through evolutionary processes such as natural selection, salmon have been able to persist, and even thrive, by developing some rather unique and impressive characteristics and abilities which enhance their genetic diversity, including:

  • the ability to “navigate” and migrate enormous distances;
  • a very fine-tuned “homing” ability that allows them to return to their natal streams, while at the same time having sufficient straying capability to colonize new or previously lost habitats;
  • a life-history which results in the bulk of the population being at sea during the “catastrophic” natural disturbances (e.g., floods, wildfire, drought, etc.) which occur periodically within their freshwater habitat;
  • tetraploid chromosomes, common in plants but unusual in animals, which may provide resistance to adverse genetic effects from inbreeding when populations are low;
  • the ability to dramatically change their kidney function so as to be able to move between fresh and salt water, which allows them to utilize the relatively rich marine environment for growth and the relatively safe freshwater environment for reproduction and initial rearing; and
  • the ability to evolve quickly to different environments by adopting life-history strategies, such as migration timing or body size, to a wide variety of different, localized freshwater environments – ranging from intermittent streams in southern California to alpine lakes near the continental divide in Idaho to frequently frozen rivers above the Arctic Circle in Alaska and Canada.


Managing salmon resources involves preventing overharvest, protecting and restoring habitat, managing hydro and other dams, and augmentation of wild populations with hatchery production.  While counter-intuitive, large-scale hatchery production does not usually produce more fish and can seriously reduce fitness of wild populations.  Most current hatchery practices, such as supplementing or augmenting wild populations with hatchery-bred fish produced from artificial (rather than natural) mate selection, are antithetical to the goal.  Additionally, hatchery production requires a large investment of funds that might be better spent on habitat acquisition and restoration, alternative energy sources, law enforcement or better monitoring and evaluation.  It is not uncommon for the return of one hatchery salmon to cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.  The majority of which is paid by taxpayers and ratepayers, not from the sale of licenses and tags.

Among other effects, genetic changes are contributing to the problem of salmon declines.  Most recent research has shown significant reductions in salmon and steelhead production when hatchery fish are spawning with wild fish, even at fairly low levels (~10-15%) of hatchery fish.  In addition to genetic effects from interbreeding, impacts to wild salmon begin as soon as the hatchery fish are released into the rivers and streams.  These potentially include disease transmission, competition, direct predation, altered migratory behavior, and altered predator survival and behavior.

In addition to these direct effects, the release of millions of hatchery reared fish (and their subsequent return) makes it nearly impossible to assess accurately the status of many wild stocks.  This is further exacerbated during periods of high ocean productivity when hatchery fish survive (and spawn) at much higher rates than at other times.  The offspring from these pairings are unmarked and are essentially indistinguishable (without genetic analysis) from true wild stocks.  They are then usually counted, inappropriately, as wild.

Despite the large body of scientific information that portrays the damage done, there has been little real change in the current hatchery/harvest paradigm.  The effects on mixed-stock fisheries are evaluated as large, coast-wide aggregates while potentially devastating impacts on local population segments go unevaluated, and unreported.  Similarly, there has been very little change in land and water uses that affect salmon habitat.

As to habitat “restoration,” most of what has been done to date is the uncoordinated treatment of some of the more obvious symptoms, while totally ignoring the causes – like widespread clearcutting and road building in forest watersheds, unrestricted livestock grazing, diversions of large amounts of water from stream channels for irrigation and domestic use, urban and industrial development on and adjacent to floodplains, and the continued construction (or retention) of more dams.  Successful, widespread restoration of wild salmon stocks will require a significant paradigm shift from current approaches.

Many researchers have concluded that for restoration programs to succeed, there must be a shift away from simplistic technofixes – such as hatcheries for low fish numbers or log structures for poor habitat conditions – to ecologically-based restoration of watershed processes.


I’ll conclude with a quote from the book Salmon Without Rivers, (Lichatowich, 1999) in which he concluded:

Today we are faced with a legacy of more than a century of salmon management based on a faulty set of assumptions.  Natural salmon habitats have been wrecked while we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on hatcheries, chasing the foolish dream of producing salmon without rivers.  Every independent scientific review of the current management system has called for a major overhaul, but bureaucratic salmon managers still cling to the status quo, defend their hatchery programs, and embrace without thinking the outmoded worldview from which hatcheries first emerged in 1872. [Page 219]

If your interested in learning more about fisheries management in the Umpqua Basin or would like to get involved, contact the Steamboaters Board at

Kirk BlaineSalmon and Steelhead Management in the Umpqua River