PHILOMATH, Ore. -- Ron Yechout was elk hunting in the Coast Range a couple years ago when he came upon technicians at the Fall Creek hatchery bashing coho salmon in the head with baseball bats and stripping their blood-red eggs into 5-gallon buckets.
Yechout got his video camera -- so incensed was he to learn that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife was killing thousands of hatchery fish and millions of their eggs so that about 100 threatened wild Alsea River coho could spawn without competition from their domesticated cousins.
Just as the Zapruder film fueled doubts over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Yechout's home video is spawning resistance to government efforts to save salmon as he shows it to service clubs and chambers of commerce.
The video has found a receptive audience among people still smarting over logging cutbacks to protect the northern spotted owl. It has also sparked a legislative effort to stop killing hatchery fish and a challenge of the Endangered Species Act.
''We can have a California condor raised in a laboratory and turn them loose and they are wild,'' said Yechout, the manager of a bank in this small farming and logging town. ''Yet we have a higher standard for fish. There is something wrong with that.''
Hatcheries have been part of the Pacific salmon equation since 1872, when the U.S. Fish Commission built the first one on the McCloud River in Northern California. Since then more than 400 have been established from Alaska to California, turning out more than 325 million juvenile fish a year.
The biggest problem with hatcheries is they make people think they can have salmon without worrying about wiping out their spawning habitat with dams, clearcut logging and overgrazing, biologist Jim Lichatowich argues in his book, ''Salmon Without Rivers.''
From the very beginning, hatcheries ignored the lifecycle that had made wild salmon thrive for 10,000 years since the last Ice Age. Eggs were routinely shipped as far away as New Zealand, with no regard for the local adaptations the fish had evolved for their home rivers. Gene pools were truncated by spawning a whole generation from the first few fish to come in.
While hatcheries are good at producing fish for people to catch, they are not as good at producing fish to survive in the wild, said Reg Reisenbichler, a biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
To thrive in a hatchery, fish feed aggressively on the top of the water, where their food pellets are scattered. In the wild, that sort of behavior will get a smolt eaten by a kingfisher.
As a result, hatcheries genetically change the behavior of the fish, and are vulnerable to booms and busts, said Robin Waples, director of conservation biology at the National Marine Fisheries Service's Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.
Hatcheries generally release smolts all at once, so a whole generation can be wiped out hitting the ocean when food is scarce or predators are plentiful. Spawners come back in a bunch, too, making them vulnerable to the weather.
Wild fish are spread out as they migrate to the ocean and return to spawn, so if smolts run into a school of hungry mackerel or the eggs laid by spawners are washed away by flood, there are others behind them.
''The only sure way we know of maintaining salmon into the future is maintaining the natural diversity we know has carried the species through long periods in the past,'' Waples said.
Though still considered experimental by government agencies, tribal fisheries programs think combining higher survival rates of young fish in hatcheries with habitat restoration will bring back more fish for spiritual and economic use.
On the Hood River, which runs off towering Mount Hood into the Columbia, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs have joined with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. They are raising the fish under more natural conditions, and allowing the fish to decide when to go into the river, rather than dumping them out of a truck.
''We feel we've got to imitate Mother Nature the best we can,'' said Mick Jennings, a former state fisheries biologist now working for the Warm Springs Tribes. ''These fish have adapted over thousands of years on their own. The problems in this basin are man-caused activities.''
They haven't been doing it long enough to see any increase in returning adults, but they have doubled the proportion of young fish reaching the mouth of Hood River, Jennings said.
At Fall Creek hatchery in Oregon's Coast Range, the coho were bred since the 1950s for fishermen to catch in the ocean. After ocean coho seasons were essentially eliminated in 1993 to protect dwindling wild stocks, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission decided to shut down Fall Creek's coho program, said Doug DeHart, fisheries chief for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Smolt survival was seriously declining, from 5 percent in the 1970s to 0.5 percent in recent years, he said. As a mix of stocks taken from up and down the coast and the lower Columbia River, they lacked the local adaptations evolved by wild fish.
DeHart's explanations didn't dissuade two state representatives incensed by Yechout's video from crafting a bill that would bar the state from killing off hatchery fish and create an expert panel to review the science.
''It just doesn't make sense to kill an endangered species when we're trying to keep them alive,'' said state Rep. Jeff Kropf, R-Halsey, who with state Rep. Betsy Close, R-Albany, plans to introduce the bill next year.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a property rights organization, lost attempts to stop killing the Fall Creek hatchery coho, but has a lawsuit arguing that the Endangered Species Act protects hatchery coho as well as wild.
''Now because of the Ron Yechout video, we know why salmon are dying,'' said foundation attorney Russell Brooks. ''The government is killing them.
''That allows them to continue to list coho salmon as a threatened species, which in turn allows them to continue to regulate. In that regulation they control land use and resources. That's what it is, is a land grab.''
An adviser to the foundation, retired Oregon State University fisheries professor Jim Lannan finds the science favoring wild fish to be weak. He notes that the two strongest wild runs of coho in Oregon are on rivers where salmon ranching operations went bust, leaving their domesticated stock to breed with wild fish.
''All I want to see is some intellectual honesty brought into the argument and see what the public wants,'' Lannan said. ''If they want culture-based fisheries so they can have the kind of robust offshore fisheries they had several years ago, that's fine. Or if they want to treat salmon like a museum piece, that's fine, too.''
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