Contrary to popular belief, hatchery-raised salmon can and are edging out wild populations.
In western North America, hatcheries were begun in 1872 on California’s McCloud River to counteract the degradation in habitat.
At the time, hatchery proponents thought the plan was genius: simply replace declining runs due to habitat loss from dams, logging, mining, industry, and development with more fish. Hatchery managers operated under the idea that “more is better,” releasing more and more hatchery fish to today, with over 400 hatcheries now established from Alaska to California releasing billions of juvenile fish. In Washington alone, over 5 billion juvenile hatchery salmon are released into the North Pacific Ocean each year.
Unfortunately, early hatchery proponents failed to study how many fish our oceans and rivers could sustain, or how the hatchery fish would interact with wild stocks.
Fast-forward to today, and in some rivers, hatchery fish have edged out the last of the wild populations completely. The reasons for this are subtle, but the evidence is mounting that hatchery fish are an important resource for some fishermen today, but disastrous for the long-term survival of the species and the future of the fishery.
So why do hatcheries persist? Is it a lack of belief in the research? Or is it just easier to keep doing what we’ve been doing for a hundred years and hope that the result will be different?
One key reason is that hatcheries are now a $1 billion industry in Washington State. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) operates 83 hatcheries, 80% for salmon/steelhead and the rest for trout and other gamefish.
Fifty-one tribal hatcheries (that produce approximately 40 million salmon and steelhead each year) and 12 federal hatcheries also contribute to the hatchery system in Washington State. The Hatcheries Division, the largest component of WDFW’s Fish Program runs on a $70 million budget and draws $11 million from the State General Fund yearly. An extensive programmatic infrastructure helps maintain hatchery programs, even if they make little sense.
But would stopping hatchery production actually work? It’s been tried—and it did. In 2008, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) discontinued its coastal Coho Salmon hatchery program. After decades of devastating loses to wild Coho, ODFW biologists concluded that the principal threat to the wild population in the Salmon River was the hatchery itself.
Despite fears that the entire fishery would collapse without the supplementation of the hatchery Coho, within a few years, an equal or greater number of naturally spawned salmon returned.
We must take on the difficult work of culling the hatcheries that produce fish in a system too fragile to support them, and spend more efforts on habitat restoration to give wild fish a fighting chance.
Hatcheries have played a role in pushing wild salmon toward extinction but some hatcheries should stay. One thing is certain: to keep supplementing artificially reared fish into an already fragile system (poor habitat, uncertain ocean conditions, excess predation) will not help us reach our goal of saving these wild fish.