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As a flood of spring chinook salmon heads up the Columbia River to spawn, hatchery managers are preparing to welcome them back.
But, in light of recent controversies over clubbing "surplus" salmon, one burning question is occupying the minds of federal, state and tribal salmon managers this week: What to do with all the extras?
Federal hatchery managers are assiduously avoiding answering that question, at least until they finish negotiating with state and tribal representatives.
"The first goal is to have enough fish to spawn to create the next generation of spring chinook," said Steve Pastor, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Vancouver. "If there were no endangered species, it would be a lot easier to do things."
Federal managers are reluctant to let hatchery fish swim upstream and spawn in the wild.
Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service worry that a large number of returning adult hatchery fish could overwhelm the last vestiges of naturally spawning populations. They worry that hatchery fish, raised in the protected concrete-and-steel environment of hatcheries, will equip their offspring with traits that narrow their chances of surviving in the wild.
By mixing wild and hatchery fish, federal managers worry they run the risk of eroding survival traits that wild fish have adopted over the course of thousands of years.
This year, there are more spring chinook to worry about than ever before.
The latest forecast calls for 400,000 spring chinook to enter the mouth of the Columbia River a figure that almost doubles the previous high since record-keeping began at Bonneville Dam in 1938.
Fishery managers had hoped to whittle down this year's huge run of spring chinook by extending sport, tribal and commercial fishing seasons into April for the first time since 1977. That will still leave a massive group of spring chinook making their way upstream to spawn, primarily at the hatcheries where most of the run was raised.
Many of the fish will be harvested for their eggs and sperm, artificially spawning the next generation.
A small number will escape from the hatcheries and spawn in the wild.
The rest will be "surplused," which generally means they'll be clubbed to death without releasing their eggs and sperm. The carcasses will be dedicated to a variety of purposes, from stocking food banks to being thrown into streams as nutrient enhancements.
The practice of clubbing surplus fish is nothing new hatcheries have been doing it for years but it has begun to generate more controversy as more salmon stocks land on the endangered species list.
Landowners being asked to sacrifice to help imperiled stocks of wild salmon, in some cases surrendering water rights, have reacted angrily to a videotape taken in 1998 by an Oregon elk hunter showing hatchery workers clubbing surplus fish.
"It's hard to understand how you can shut down a farm and take away someone's livelihood on one hand, then on the other club salmon over the head," said Gary Strannigan, director of Washington Citizens for a Sound Economy, a free-market advocacy organization.
Tribes, too, oppose the practice of clubbing surplus hatchery fish.
"Fish that are not needed for brood stock purposes and are not used for some sort of subsistence, those fish should be left in the river to let nature take its course," said Steve Parker, harvest manager for the Yakama Nation.
Parker added that tribal fish managers are negotiating this week with state and federal biologists in an effort to resolve the fractious debate that crystallized last summer on the Methow River in north-central Washington. At that time, tribal and property rights groups threatened to place a weir in front of a federal fish hatchery to divert surplus hatchery fish to the wild.
This year, Parker said, the parties are closer to finding some common ground.
"We don't have a resolution, but we're getting closer," he said Tuesday.
Tribal groups maintain that salmon have adapted genetic characteristics repeatedly to adapt to landslides, volcanic eruptions and other changes in the environment, and they will again.
Further, they say there's nothing sacrosanct about defending the genes of wild fish that adapted to a free-flowing Columbia River. Those days are gone. Hydroelectric dams have long since altered the Columbia's natural free-flowing state to a stair-stepping series of reservoirs.
Trying to maintain those genes represents a misplaced emphasis, tribal representatives said.
"It becomes kind of a genetic ghost chase," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland.