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This paper was written as part of the 2000 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus, sp.)--An in-depth research paper on the population decline of Pacific salmon in Alaska

Written in part by each of the following:
Georgjeana Hilbish
Beth Poland
Diana Richmond
Serena Sterrett

East Anchorage High School
4025 East Northern Lights Blvd.
Anchorage, Alaska 99508

Abstract

There has recently been a significant change in salmon populations throughout the Pacific Northwest. Although we know of many possible reasons for this change, as of now, scientists and researchers do not have a definitive reason why this is occurring. The problem set before us is how do we avert a downward spiral before its consequences become permanent. We have examined a wide array of possibilities as to why this is happening. In conducting research, we discovered two major sources from which all possible causes branch from, human influences and natural occurrences. From these two categories affecting salmon populations, some factors appear to be more significant than others. These possibilities include factors such as habitat destruction, increased demand placed on salmon by commercial fishing industries, disruption of populations through the addition of hatchery fish, the long lasting effects of oil from major oil spills, and changes in the temperature of the ocean caused by El Niño and other weather patterns. An added concern is the current political controversy on the management of subsistence fishing which plays a significant role in traditions within our state.

Introduction

Salmon play a very prominent role in Alaska's economy, recreation, politics and heritage. Natural fluctuations in salmon populations, as well as stresses induced by man, have wide reaching effects. In Alaska there are five distinct species of salmon. The chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus twhawytscha ), also know as the king salmon, is the most highly prized by sport fisherman. The chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) is also called the dog salmon and has the widest distribution of all Pacific salmon. The coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) is also called the silver salmon; they are extremely adaptable and found in almost all accessible bodies of water. The pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) is known as the "humpy" or "humpback." In some coastal fishing communities the humpy is called the " bread and butter" because it supports so much of the villages industry. The sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) or red salmon is becoming increasingly sought after by sport fisherman, and it is an important mainstay of subsistance fishers. Salmon are very sensitive to any change in the environment: loss of breeding ground, warmer ocean temperatures, and increasing legal and illegal commercial fishing. All these species of salmon are essential to the Alaskan economy, heritage and sustenance of life in the ocean environment. Protecting and maintaining these salmon populations is crucial.

The " Four H's" of salmon population decline

Human intervention into the salmons' natural habitat typically appears in four primary ways. They include hydroelectric dams, habitat degradation, harvesting, and hatchery practices, dubbed by scientists as the "Four H's." Although hydroelectric dams are not so much of a problem in Alaska, they create numerous difficulties for salmon attempting to navigate their way through streams and rivers on which these dams are placed. The mortality rate for salmon swimming through these dams is extremely high. The large turbines that run the dams cause the salmon to get caught in underwater currents, which suck them in and kill them instantly. Another effect of hydroelectric dams on the salmon is their tendency to warm the water of the nearby streams and rivers. This creates lower levels of food and nutrients for the salmon as they migrate through these waters and could accelerate development stages.

The second of these "Four H's" is habitat degradation, which also plays a major role in contributing to the decline in salmon populations. The natural habitat of Pacific salmon can be affected by both natural fluctuations in the environment and by anthropogenic disturbances. Some of the ways in which salmon habitat can be affected include logging and deforestation, road construction near salmon inhabited streams and rivers, and pollution. All of these problems will influence salmon populations eventually if they go unattended, the only way to avoid a serious problem is to change peoples attitudes toward these resources so that they will still be plentiful in the future.

Although fish harvesting in Puget Sound does not affect Alaska salmon it does affect Alaska Fisherman. This specific area suffers greatly from over-fishing. The primary reason this body of water is over fished is that Puget Sound marks the spot of intersection between Alaskan and Canadian fishermen causing this area to be hit twice as hard by many large fishing vessels. Because of this heavy fishing a smaller number of adult salmon reach breeding grounds resulting in low numbers of salmon the following year.

Hatcheries, the fourth and final "H", also play an important role in the genetic aspect of salmon survival. Although hatcheries can positively affect the salmon populations, the negative affect is greater. When salmon fry are brought up in hatcheries, they are not always genetically prepared for the wild.

Habitat Loss & Destruction

Habitat loss is one of the most serious problems affecting salmon populations. A great deal of small disturbances made by humans to the environment add up over time. With growing populations, the amount of land used for urban development increases causing people to intrude into the salmon's natural habitat. In order for spawning to be successful the stream must have the following characteristics:

Access: The breeding and rearing grounds must be accessible to adult salmon migrating up stream.

Stream Flow: The stream flow must be stable, with a low number of extreme freshets and droughts occurring.

Substrate: Salmon require clean gravel of 1 to 15 cm in diameter to provide an adequate concentration of dissolved oxygen for developing embryos and alevins. This also allows for the disposal of metabolic wastes such as carbon dioxide and ammonia.

Cover: Salmon require undercut banks, overhanging streamside vegetation, and deep pools, to provide feeding, resting places, and escape for juvenile salmon.

Temperature: The temperature of streams should be between 12 and 14 degrees Celcius to maintain the ideal amount of dissolved oxygen.

Clarity: Salmon require clear streams in order for the sunlight to reach the bottom where most primary production occurs. Highly turbid water can inhibit the salmons naturally ability to feed, and highly abrasive concentrations of suspended solids can directly damage the salmon physically.

Each of a streams qualities can be negatively impacted by human and natural acts. The stream can handle brief natural fluctuations, but humans have come and changed characteristics. Some problems humans can impose on salmon are damaging the surrounding cover, trampling on the flood plains, creating debris in the water cutting down on clarity, and logging which allows for increased bank erosion.

Forestry practices play a significant role in the decline of salmon populations. They affect salmon in two ways: they destroy critical habitat and add to the difficulties of migration.

In the 1890's many rivers were used to transport logs (University of Oregon,1995). During this process, many foresters constructed a dam and then filled the river with logs until no more room existed. When this point was reached, the dam was destroyed, causing a large rush of logs to flow down the river. These logs in turn decimated all the salmon in their path as well as changing stream and river dynamics. The logs removed spawning gravel, altered stream channels, and destroyed riverbank vegetation. This practice continued well into the 1950's and 1960's.

Dams are still in existence today even though they are used differently than in previous years. Still a threat to salmon, dams are said to be responsible for between 70% and 90% of salmon mortality incurred by man (New York Times, 1995). Most of these dams are built in a way that prevents returning salmon from navigating either through or around them. Fish ladders were created to help salmon progress upstream past these obstacles; however, many of these devices were designed for salmon travelling upstream, offering no help for young salmon moving downstream to the ocean. Dams may also increase the time required for salmon to travel from their spawning ground to the sea. A journey once made in a week may now take the salmon over a month (Trilling, Smith).

Commercial Fishing

Another factor affecting the decline of the salmon populations is the increased occurence of commercial fishing. The Alaska Division of Economic Development states that the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission needs to reduce the operating costs of processing plants, utilize investments to promote a sustainable industry for the salmon, investigate how to retain fishing permits, and give enhanced revenues to the local fishermen (Hickel, 1992). An example of this would be the reexamination of current loan policies, as well as helping to increase wages for industry workers.

Many communities, as well as private companies and other agencies, depend on fishing as their sole source of income and food. Commercial fishermen need smaller processing plants to reduce costs and to establish economic development growth plans. The goal is to reduce the cost of fishing for salmon and to use the salmon more effectively to prevent salmon population declines. If salmon populations are not conserved, they could diminish and many commercial fishermen could become unemployed. In 1998, the Northwest Fisheries Science Center coordinated a multi-agency data bank for advice to both harvest management and restoration efforts for the salmon. Researchers must be able to follow the salmon with tracking devices. This will help scientists determine migration patterns and locate spawning areas.

In 1976, the Magnuson Act was established. The act delineated a national border of 200 miles that prohibits foreign fleets from harvesting Alaskan salmon in this zone. Since the enforcement of this act, the world harvesting of salmon has tripled from 365,000 tons to 1.2 million tons of salmon (The Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development Division of Economic Development, 1993). The competitors are China, Russia, Norway, and Japan that all increased in market shares. (Global Business Network, 1993)

To improve the gathering of salmon by commercial fishermen, a person needs current detailed knowledge of the consumer's needs, the competitor's products, and information on the cost of production. Another strategy employed by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is to have fishermen help finance operation costs. The processors should get on loan programs, so they can more effectively market their products to sell. Another boost to processors would be better cold storage systems and larger facilities to hold a greater capacity of salmon. The commercial fishermen also need to have shorter and more frequent opportunities to fish to decrease the amount of waste from fish that has spoiled. (State of Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development Division of Economic Development, 1992)

Some of the factors that contribute to loss of production money are inefficient use of processing equipment and lack of cold storage facilities all contribute. With improvements on these above factors, the costs facing commercial fishermen would decrease (The Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development Division, 1992).

Hatcheries

Hatcheries were originally introduced as a solution to the problem with salmon populations; however, instead of preventing a problem they appear to be creating a much larger one. In the wild, less than 10% of the eggs laid in the stream survive long enough to become smolts (Lord, 1994), whereas controlled breeding at hatcheries ensures nearly 100% egg survival rate (The Oregonian, 1995). Even though the survival rate of the eggs in hatcheries is higher, many problems arise following emergence.

Hatcheries were designed to increase salmon populations; however, in doing so people forgot about what was in the best biological interest of the species. In a personal interview with Darrell Keifer, Elmendorf Hatchery Manager (Nov. 1999), we learned that mixing salmon stocks can cause returning salmon to be smaller with a lower average survival rate. Fish produced in hatcheries are raised in concrete pools where they will stay from the time they reach alevin stage, when they are released into the wild. Since hatcheries do not duplicate conditions in the wild, once the fish are released it is difficult for them to survive. This point is discussed in The Problem with Hatcheries (Brewer, 1995), a research paper concerned with the impact and effectiveness of salmon hatcheries. "Hatchery raised salmon quickly mutate to become more adapted to the survival in hatcheries than to survival in natural riverine conditions" (Sterne, 1993). Hatchery fish often swim near the surface, which in turn makes them an easy target for predators in the wild. Humans, who the salmon previously relied upon for food, are now a threat to their survival. Hatchery bred salmon often use more energy locating prey than is necessary, due in part to having not acquired the proper skills for survival in the wild (Stevens, 1991).

Many stocks of hatchery raised salmon are very similar genetically, due to controlled breeding in hatcheries. When hatchery raised salmon are released, they breed with wild salmon. Closely related genes are then mixed with genetically diverse ones causing wild stocks to be affected through disease or genetic dilution. Inbreeding can also cause genetic changes. "[All] available evidence is consistent with the conclusion that the effective number of breeders per year averaged 50 or less in most of the hatcheries"(Waples and Teel, 1990). Over time when a generation of species relies on just 50 fish to continue their survival, genes become less and less similar to their original make-up. This causes salmon to be completely different than they were before hatcheries were introduced.

Oil Spills

Although countless oil spills occur every year, most are so minor that they go unnoticed; however, in March 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil in the bay at Bligh Reef. The oil rapidly moved along the coast line contaminating portions of Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula, the lower Cook Inlet, the Kodiak Archipelago, and the Alaska Peninsula. The oil spread up to 470 miles southwest of the reef where the tanker ran aground. An estimated 1,500 miles of shoreline were contaminated, as shown in figure 1 (Rosen, 1999).

Ten years after this tragedy, many scientists are surprised that they are still seeing the side effects of the oil spill recurring in present generations of salmon. In 1993, a group of National Marine Fisheries Service scientists began a study as to why this was still an issue of concern ten years after the event. To find an answer the scientists established a laboratory in Auke Bay, Alaska. They simulated the conditions found in salmon spawning habitats. They raised alevin in water containing old weathered oil, like that still found on many beaches along Prince William Sound. The result was gross deformities in salmon, such as extra fins, retarded development, and other problems that would decrease the probability of the salmon surviving through adulthood. Putting this idea in perspective, Stanley Rice of National Marine and Fisheries Service, states, "Think of fetal-alcohol syndrome in humans, in the wild environment, that's kind of what we're having" (Rosen,1999).

The results of this study contradict previous assumptions that the light weight elements of oil, which are the most toxic and cause the acute side effects in marine animals, would evaporate within days, but apparently they have not. In the 1970s scientists were mainly concerned with short-term toxicity. Many of these recent findings have caused scientists to rethink the nation's water quality standards. Alaska has some of the nation's highest standards, with hydrocarbon levels allowed to be at most 15 parts-per-billion. The scientists who conducted the Auke Bay research reported that even at levels of 5 to 20 parts-per-billion of hydrocarbons the laboratory salmon showed the same side effects and had a return rate of 40% less than the average. " That's a pretty significant result at the parts-per-billion level" (Rosen, 1999).

Weather and El Niño

Many weather patterns affect salmon populations such as excessive flooding, drought and dry conditions, and changes in ocean temperatures. One of the major weather phenomenons that affect these ocean temperatures is El Niño. This disturbance occurs when a predictable upwelling of cold water, from the ocean floor, ceases. El Niño is part of a global climate system called the "southern oscillation," this is the primary indicator of El Niño. El Niños can last from several months to several years and vary in intensity. This phenomenon affects weather throughout the world. El Niño patterns create a problem because the water from the ocean floor is extremely nutrient rich and contains the smaller microscopic organisms that the salmon depend on for food. This change in temperature and the accompanying lack of food supply causes most females to produce fewer eggs. This also causes many salmon to die prematurely, and those that do survive have a lower average weight (Gentle, 1996).

Although we now have the capacity to predict an El Niño event, the accuracy in doing so is only slightly better than guessing. Because of this inaccuracy, there have been times (such as the 1982-1983 El Niño year) when fishery experts have predicted a certain number of salmon to return, and unfortunately only a small percent of the salmon were successful, leaving staggering populations due to over fishing. An improvement of El Niño forecasting accuracy needs to be made available for utilization in determining fishery management decisions. When a salmon stock is projected to have a certain return rate, the management teams implement the number of salmon that can be taken without damaging the population, but as you can see in figure 2, the predictions often exceed the eventual return rate. The ability to predict significant changes in the climate would allow for a greater oppurtunity to aviod over fishing of the returning salmon. Richard Adams, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at Oregon State University, comments that "Improved El Niño forecasts would allow fishery managers to make more effective decisions and perhaps reduce the need for drastic short-term measures, such as closing the commercial and recreational coho fishing seasons."(Gentle, 1996)

Another effect of El Niño on salmon populations is a change in migratory routes due to the change in ocean water temperatures. El Niño is often accompanied by a substantial migration of the surface phytoplankton to deeper region of the water column. This change encourages fish to migrate to cooler waters in search of food. Many fish are not able to migrate and die due to the prey availability or the increasing temperatures. Salmon arriving in the cooler waters may be unable to bear the dramatic temperature decline and also perish (Arntz, Tarazona, 1989).

Subsistence Fishing and Politics

Subsistence fishing is the taking of fish for personal use. About two percent of harvested salmon populations go to subsistence fishing (Metcalfe, 1998). A member of the Alaska Federation of Natives, states that subsistence does not play a major role in salmon populations; subsistence takes only three to four percent of the overall harvest (Irvin, 1999). George Irvin of the Alaska Federation of Natives said that what affects salmon populations is the warming of the waters, or El Niño and other natural occurences.

Although the patterns and intensity of subsistence activities have changed in recent years due to the availability of modern equipment and the integration of a cash economy, subsistence is still an important part of the rural resident's social, cultural, and economic well-being (Kelly, 1998). Today, a major difference between traditional and modern subsistence is the availability of equipment such as snow machines and motorized boats, which have increased the efficiency and success of subsistence hunting and fishing while minimizing the time required for harvest. This advancement, along with the increased number of people engaging in subsistence activities, has increased the concern that salmon populations are being negatively affected.

In spring, inland village harvest activities typically focus on fishing through the ice and along open leads. During summer, villagers intensify their fishing activities, setting seines and gill nets for salmon, whitefish, and sheefish. During the fall and winter months, they fish for sheefish and burbot under the ice (Kelly, 1998).

Alaska Statute 16.05.258, backed by several Alaska Supreme Court decisions, make clear that consumptive subsistence uses take priority over all other uses of subsistence and commercial fishing. The laws passed in Alaska concerning the future of salmon industries greatly impact the economy. No single action by a politician will solve the problems of the salmon industry. Organization and cooperation are needed in order to achieve more successful long term and short term goals.

Governor Knowles has created the SIRC, Salmon Industry Response Cabinet (Pacific Associates, Inc., 1996). The cabinet is to develop and implement long and short term strategies in the communities affected by the declining prices of Alaska's salmon. The goals of the Salmon Cabinet are as follows:

  • to increase new salmon product options to the consumers
  • to expand markets, both domestically and abroad
  • to increase overall quality and increase cost efficiency
  • to maximize the value of the salmon resource and increase job available to Alaskans
(Alaska Department of Commerce and Economic Development, 1993)

Achieving these goals will help the coastal communities and regions of Alaska that depend entirely upon the salmon industry for economic and social stability. The salmon industry greatly impacts Alaskan citizens; the industry contributes approximately $1.3 billion annually to the state's economy.

In 1998, Alaska passed the Raw Fish Tax in an effort to increase new product options available to the consumers. The tax imposed is 3% of the value if the fish is processed at a shore-based facility into any product form other than canned, 4.5% if the fish is canned, or 5% if the fish is processed on a floating processor.

In order to expand markets for the Alaska salmon industry the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), which is the primary tool for generic marketing of salmon, additional funding must become available. This institute was founded by the salmon industry in order to obtain this funding, harvesters are assessed 1% of their salmon ex-vessel value income, whereas while processors contribute 0.3% of the ex-vessel value of all seafood species. In recent years, state and federal contributions have declined greatly, affecting the funding available to ASMI. Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is crucial to the recovery of the Alaska salmon industry so that Alaska can better expand the domestic export market opportunities.

The quality of Alaskan salmon is a factor that needs to be considered in improving the industry. Some regions of Alaska, such as Southeast, consistently chill the fish they have harvested, whereas in other regions, such as Bristol Bay, approximately 80% do not chill the harvested fish because of the high cost (Alaska Division of Fish and Game, 1996). As a result, many tons of harvested fish go to waste every year. Through mandatory chilling the quality of Alaska's salmon will significantly improve, meeting or even exceeding the markets the quality the market demands. By creating and implementing industry wide quality standards, we could expect an enhanced overall value of Alaskan salmon.

The responsibility of managing the wild salmon stocks when populations are endangered has been given to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) and the Board of Fisheries. By working side by side with the ADF&G, the Board of Fisheries has successfully established a record returns of healthy stocks for the last two decades.

Management Plan

To address the recent trend of population declines in salmon, we introduce a variety of options. The major problem effecting salmon is human apathy. Many Alaskans either feel that they are not affecting salmon populations or they simply do not care about the outcome of their actions. A major factor humans are pose upon salmon is increased urbanization. Examples include the existence of dams, housing developments, logging practices, and careless recreational use of streamside areas.

Fritz Kraus of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game states that the primary solution to the population problem is to keep people off the flood plains (personal interview, Nov. 1999). Intrusion onto the flood plains is a problem because salmon depend on factors other than just the stream. When necessary to invade this area it must be done thoughtfully. Careful use can be accomplished by building bridges instead of colverts to minimize intrusion. Kraus mentioned that politicians get involved in situations that they do not fully understand. Politicians need to work in partnership with scientists. Much less confusion would arise when it came to making fish management decisions, "They need to let the scientist do their job" says Kraus (Nov.,1999).

Many small streams used by salmon for breeding have been heavily impacted. The filling and polluting of these small streams as a result of development and recreational use results in a lack of shallow water protection for salmon. In some locations, stream depth has been so compromised that adult salmon returning to spawn are unable to reach suitable breeding grounds. To remedy the continuing degradation of small stream habitat, regulations need to be established and enforced limiting development, building, and recreational use along many small streams.

Many Alaskans are unaware of the importance of preserving salmon habitats. To make more people aware of the situation there needs to be an increase in public involvement, especially that of children. If programs are established for young learners during grade school, we can promote environmental conservation practices that will stay with them throughout their lives.

To improve the quality of salmon harvest, the state could develop quality standards for companies involved in the harvesting and processing of salmon. These standards could be optional for the company, with those companies choosing not to comply assessed an additional rate on their fisheries business tax. Products processed from these companies should include the lack of compliance with quality standards on the label. With an annual average production of close to 800 million pounds of salmon, a one cent decline in the average price of salmon in the market would be an eight million dollar loss.

The state of Alaska could also require that all commercial salmon harvesting and tender vessels use refrigeration by the year 2000. Enforcing the chilling of harvested salmon would contribute to the quality of marketed salmon. The state of Alaska could provide an incentive for the use of refrigeration through the use of a financial aid package or marketing preference over other companies.

Young children are the generation of the future. It will be up to them to maintain this fragile resource. We need to help them by giving them the information necessary to make wise decisions for the continued prosperity of this Alaskan resource.

Conclusion

To put the situation in perspective we have conducted a number of interviews and have reviewed pertinent research papers. Human activity plays the largest role in affecting salmon populations. To protect salmon we must change our attitudes toward how we deal with their habitat and the salmon as a resource. Nature does play a role in this decline by imposing certain changes, but salmon can adapt to most of these natural fluctuations. However, they can not deal with the growing number of situations that humans are imposing upon them.

Salmon play a vital role in the food chain, the environment, the economy, and to many Alaskans they provide a means of survival. Salmon resources and habitat are not carefully used. Alaskans rely on salmon as a resource, but if misuse persists, salmon will no longer provide a sustainable harvest for future generations.

Management strategies to protect the resource salmon provide need to include limits on harvesting, continued research and monitoring of hatcheries, public awareness campaigns and limits on the recreational and developmental use of vital salmon habitat.

Works Cited

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Alaska Division of Fish and Game. 1996. "Alaska commercial Salmon Harvests, 1970-1995" TIX database system. Online, aol. Available HTTP: http://www.cf.adfg.state.ak.us/geninfo/FINFISH/SALMON/catchval/history/1970-95s.htm (September 1999).

Angermeier, et al. 1990 . "Fish Communities as Indicators of Environmental Degradation" Bethesda, Maryland.

Arntz, Wolf and Tarazona, Juan. 1998. " The effects of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation on fish of the Eastern Pacific" Weslyan University Library. Online, Dogpile. Available HTTP: http://www.weslyan.edu/libr/scourse/elnino/fish.htm (September, 1999).

Bollinger, et al. 1995. "The Conflict over Alaskan Salmon hatcheries: University of Oregon. Online, aol. Available HTTP: http://www.kenyon.edu/projects/envs61/fro.htm (September, 1999).

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Brewer, et al. 1995. "Hatcheries: Purpose and Process" University of Oregon,. Online, yahoo. Avaiable HTTP: http://biology.uoregon.edu/classes/bi130/webprojects/43/sec3.html (September, 1999).

Brewer, et al. 1995 . "The Problem with hatcheries" University of Oregon. Online, yahoo. Available HTTP: http://biology.uoregon.edu/classes/bi130/webprojects/43/sec4.html (September, 1999).

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David, et al. 1990. "Conservation Genetics of pacific Salmon." Conservation Biology. June. pp. 144-155.

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Elliott, Steve. 1989. " Coho Salmon" Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Wildlife Notebook Series.

Gentle, Tom. 1996. "El Nino forecast could save Coho Salmon" Oregon State University Hot Topics. Online, Dogpile. Avaliable HTTP: http://osu.orst.edu/dept/ncs/newsarch/1996/96October/elnino.htm (October, 1999).

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Sterne, Jack K. 1993. "Supplementation of Wild Salmon Stocks: A Cure for the Hatchery Problem or More Problem Hatcheries?" Coastal Management. vol. 23 no. 2, pp. 123-141.

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Trilling, Sarah and Smith, Bryan. 1995. The Impact of Dams on the Columbia River Salmon Population" University of Oregon. Online, Yahoo. Available HTTP: http://biology.oregon.edu/classes/bi130/webprojects/47/rylee.html (September,1999).

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