In the Pacific Northwest, the overall number of salmon is declining, and the conflict between artificially reared hatchery salmon and wild, or native, salmon, adds to the reduction of native species. To protect the native species, restrictions on overall salmon harvests have been made. Because current harvesting methods don't differentiate between native and hatchery salmon, the restrictions imposed to protect native salmon result in lower hatchery salmon harvests as well.
"Reintroduction of an old method of harvesting, the fishwheel," said Williams College economist William K. Jaeger, "may help address this ecological and management problem, while at the same time restoring profitability to commercial fisheries that have suffered in recent years. "
The fishwheel, a method of harvesting which utilizes a stationary wheel to pick up fish as they swim along the river, was used in Oregon and Washington, primarily on the Columbia River, until banned in the 1920's and 1930's. The reasons for the ban were the large harvests this method resulted in and the resulting political confrontations between different parts of the industry. Current problems are forcing a second look at this traditional method.
In a report entitled 'Better Salmon Management in the Pacific Northwest by Combining Technical and Institutional Innovations,' [to be published this summer in the Natural Resources Journal, Volume 37, No. 3] Jaeger describes how too many fishermen, too many dams, loss of spawning habitat, as well as too many hatchery-raised fish have combined to threaten the survival of native salmon.
Jaeger outlines three key advantages in his description of the benefits of a transition to the fishwheel.
One is that the method would cost less than current methods, making it more profitable to use and raising the incomes of those fishermen who would use it. These results are demonstrated by his computer simulations and projected costs, which showed that net economic benefits could be fivefold higher than now if the conversion is made.
Another advantage is the ability to select between native and hatchery fish while the fish are still alive, a powerful ecological tool for protecting vulnerable species while allowing harvesting of others.
Finally, the fact that the number of fish caught each year in a stationary fishwheel gives a reliable indication of the population of salmon as a whole means that a fishery could use the fishwheel as a better gauge of the size of the stocks of fish available, which could result in more intelligent harvest management.
"For many years people did not recognize the potential for hatchery fish to affect wild fish, but biologists now see that these fish have had substantial adverse demographic, ecological, and genetic effects on native fish populations," said Jaeger. "Hatchery fish are released to spend most of their lives in the ocean.
According to biologists, these fish have become genetically different than wild fish, exhibiting behavioral deficiencies and having lower survival rates than wild fish.
Also, the methods currently used to harvest salmon, namely gill netting and purse seining, are more costly than fishwheels, and can not release the native fish unharmed when caught along with hatchery fish (which can be tagged to identify them).
"The reintroduction of the fishwheel has the potential to be a 'win-win' opportunity because it can raise fishermen's incomes while at the same time protecting and restoring the populations of wild salmon," said Yaeger.
The conversion, if undertaken, will have obstacles. Reductions in the number of fishing jobs is usually the by-product of any policy change related to salmon fishing. Yet Jaegar shows that the current employment levels could be maintained, and with an increases in pay for fishwheel operators.
Jaeger is an assistant professor of economics at Williams College. He received his B.A. degree from Washington State University in 1976 and his Ph. D. from Stanford University in 1985.
Williams College is consistently ranked one of the nation's top liberal arts colleges. Founded in 1793, it is the second oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college of 2,000 students is located in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts.