NEWPORT, Ore. -- Private commercial salmon ranching is an idea that looked great on paper, but its promise of big profits and a revitalized commercial fishing industry has been stranded by economics, biology and plain bad luck.
The Pacific Ocean was seen as a kind of rangeland where corporate-spawned fish would 'graze' for a year or two and then follow their legendary instincts back to hatcheries owned by the likes of British Petroleum, Union Carbide and Weyerhaeuser Co.
The wealthy corporations built state-of-the art hatcheries, released millions of salmon into the ocean to be caught by sport and commercial fishermen and began counting the money to be made when the tasty coho and Chinook returned and were served to seafood-loving Americans.
But the pampered, pond-reared salmon couldn't make in the real world. They either starved to death in the ocean, became easy prey for predators or simply never returned -- at least not in sufficient numbers to make aquaculture a money-making proposition.
Now, after 12 years and investments of millions of dollars, none of Oregon's 11 private salmon-breeding farms have made a profit. Fishermen bad mouth the quality of the fish and the state legislature, which once welcomed the huge corporate investments, has turned lukewarm on the idea.
The commercial salmon trolling industry, a mainstay of the state's coastal economy, was to be the biggest beneficiary of aquaculture since it would have more fish to catch.
Instead, salmon fishermen fell on hard times and experienced their worst seasons during the same period that private hatcheries were popping up along the coast.
Recently, Weyerhaeuser Co., the Tacoma, Wash.-based timber firm which owns the state's largest aquaculture operation and has invested as much as $20 million in a hybrid, rapid-growth coho salmon, announced that it wants to sell its two hatcheries and get out of the business.
Company officials say they haven't made a profit and probably never will.
Weyerhaeuser's announcement confirmed for some the long-held suspicion that Oregon's experiment in aquaculture wasn't working out. 'I doubt it will survive,' said state Sen. Bill Bradbury, D-Bandon, a critic of the private hatcheries. 'If a well capitalized company like that can't make it I don't know who will step in and take over.'
The problems experienced by operators of private hatcheries have been both tragic and comic.
For the last seven years, the Pacific Ocean has been in what marine biologists call 'a period of low productivity' that was complicated by the effects of El Nino. In laymen's language, the young, pampered, pond-reared fish have starved to death because they can't compete for food with other, stronger fish.
In 1982, the Weyerhaeuser-owned facility in Newport released several million juvenile salmon into Yaquina Bay only to watch in dismay as the fish turned the wrong the direction and swam upstream instead of into the ocean.
Coastal birds, such as the Common Murre, which traditionally eat squid and anchovy, now dine almost exclusively on aquaculture fish. They wait outside the coastal release pens together with seals, sea lions and, in some cases, killer whales to gobble up the confused fish as they try to find their way to the ocean.
To avoid the 'stage-door' predators, the hatcheries have started putting the fish on barges and towing them out to open ocean for release - a kind of limousine service for tender-aged salmon.
Those salmon that survived and followed their instincts back to where they were released didn't always show the loyalty they should. Some either swam into the wrong hatchery or ignored them all together and continued upstream.
On the surface, aquaculture appears to be a fairly simple idea. Fertilized salmon eggs are hatched, the small fish are reared in ponds and then released into the ocean. After a year or two they come back as adults, swim into the hatchery and are either sold to fish markets or used for more eggs for the next generation.
Coastal states and the federal government have been operating successful public hatcheries for decades. In Oregon, 80 percent of the coho salmon caught in the ocean are public hatchery fish and countries such as Japan and Norway have had a great deal of success doing the same thing on a for-profit basis.
Not so for Oregon's private hatcheries. Since 1973 they have released more than 138 million fish, but only about one-half of 1 percent of those fish ever came back in a given year, far below the 1 or 2 percent needed for the operations to turn a profit.
During that same 12-year period, commercial fishermen caught only an estimated 170,000 privately hatched fish.
'What we've really been doing is feeding the birds,' said Bill McNeil, president of Oregon Aqua Foods, a wholly owned subsidiary Weyerhhaeuser Co. and the largest private salmon hatchery operation in the state.
'I think we were a little naive about the technology that had to be in place to do this on a commercial basis,' he said. 'We invested more than the state of the art dictated at the time. It was a crap shoot, but we walked into it with our eyes open.'
Aquaculture's problems were political and social as well as biological. The private hatcheries were seen as a threat to the traditional way of life of commercial salmon trollers.
They were suspicious about the role the huge corporations would play in regulating salmon season, fearing the companies would use their governmental influence to reduce salmon seasons to protect their fish and assure a greater return.
Their suspicions were fed even further when John Donaldson, founder of Oregon Aqua Foods, sold out to Weyerhaeuser in 1975 and eventually became the state's chief salmon season regulator and was later appointed director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
For 10 years Donaldson has taken heat for his role in starting Oregon's aquaculture experiment and today declines to be interviewed about the industry. 'The state hinged the health of our industry on an aquaculture experiment that didn't work,' said Dave Schlip, a Pacific City commercial fisherman. 'They regulated us right out of the ocean to protect those fish.' 'Our concern from the beginning was that these corporations owned the fish and they would call the shots about who was going to catch them,' he said. 'Sure we caught some of their fish, but they were small and the quality was bad and they ruined the reputation of Oregon salmon. Aquaculture hasn't benefited us at all.
Schlip, other fishermen and their supporters in the state legislature complain that state fish and wildlife officials de-emphasized the public salmon hatchery program thinking aquaculture would fill the void.
Harry Wagner, manager of the Fish Division of the state fish and wildlife department, said that when the private hatcheries started up the state did not increase the number of fish released from hatcheries and slowed plans to renovate and modernize existing public hatcheries.
'We looked at aquaculture as an enhancement tool that would save the state money in the future,' he said. 'That policy has changed now and we've expanded our hatchery production and doing some work on the hatcheries.'
'The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife thought aquaculture was going to be the savior of the salmon industry,' said Bradbury, whose district includes six ports used by salmon fishermen. 'It just never panned out.'
'No one has proved in Oregon that there is link between the corporate profit motive and the rearing of salmon,' he said.
'Aquaculture attracts more irrational agruments than any industry I know of around here,' said Dr. James Lannan, a fish biologist with the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. 'People accuse them of genetically engineering the fish not to bite hooks or come back when there is no salmon season and that the ocean can't support that many fish. I've never found any evidence of that.'
'People are going to have to want to make this work,' he said. 'It would help if they would just simplify what they're doing and go with what works and not invest $20 million like Weyerhaeuser did on trying to produce fish from stocks that are untested in Oregon waters.'