Fourteen years ago, the National Research Council—the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences—in Upstream: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest (National Academy Press, 1996), says on page 11 of their executive summary:
“It is now clear from synthesis and experience and from consideration of well-established biological knowledge that hatcheries have had demographic, ecological, and genetic impacts on wild salmon populations and have caused problems related to the behavior, health, and physiology of hatchery fish. They have resulted (among other effects) in reduced genetic diversity within and between salmon populations, increased the effects of mixed-population fisheries on depleted natural populations, altered behavior of fish, caused ecological problems by eliminating the nutritive contributions of carcasses of spawning salmon from steams, and probably displaced the remnants of wild runs (Chapter 12). Hatchery fish have at times exceeded the capacity of streams and are increasingly being associated with reduced marine growth and survival of wild salmon populations.”
The purpose of this essay is to list and to briefly explain some of the myriad ways in which Pacific salmon from hatcheries, fish farms, and the STEP program—herein referred to generically as artificial fish—have been shown to have a negative impact on wild Pacific salmon populations. There is some overlap in the list items, but when this is so the individual emphasis will be different.
- There have been hatcheries for Pacific salmon on the west coast of North America for somewhat more than 135 years. What has happened to salmon populations in general and wild salmon populations in particular over the last 135 years? Therefore, can hatcheries ever have done what they claimed to do?
- Making artificial fish costs a lot of money. In a quite general sense, artificial Pacific salmon that survive their sojourn in the ocean on average probably cost at least $300 to $400 dollars each. Using the hatchery at Rock Creek on the North Umpqua River as an example, wild brood stock are collected, tanks and pens are cleaned and all systems are made operational, the wild fish are spawned, the eggs are tended, the young fish are fed and protected from predators and from disease in the hatchery over a two-year period, and the 240,000 smolts are released. On an average year, approximately 1% to 2% (2,000 to 5,000 fish) of these hatchery-reared salmon return as maturing adults to spawn. All the costs, including those of infrastructure and personnel, devolve onto/can apply only to this small number of artificial fish that return. The cost of the two sockeye that returned to the Red Fish Lake Hatchery back in the 1990s sometime was in excess of $150,000.00 each.
Wild Pacific salmon rear themselves and produce their next generations for free.
- On the one hand, no sustained hatchery program for anadromous fish is possible without wild fish used as brood stock and, on the other, artificial fish undermine the productivity and resilience of wild fish, undermine them regardless of whether wild native brood stock is used for each hatchery generation or not (National Research Council (NRC) 1996, Lichatowich 1999, and Bakke 2000).
- The percentage of eggs fertilized during natural spawning by two wild steelhead in their natal stream is exactly the same as when the eggs of two wild steelhead are spawned in a bucket in a hatchery (Terry Roelofs 2002: personal communication).
In the absence of a disease outbreak, more than 95% of the young salmon that have been spawned and reared in hatcheries and fish farms survive to the smolting stage, that is the stage when Pacific salmon begin their journey to the ocean. Approximately, 95% of the young wild salmon die prior to smolting. Because the wild fish have had to fend for themselves in the steam environment and have individually paid the ultimate price when their luck or their efforts failed, this 5% that make it to the smolt stage are as strong and resilient as Mother Nature can make them. Hatchery smolts have a much higher mortality in the ocean than do wild smolts and these hatchery smolts have their 95+% mortality in the marine environment.
The 2% of hatchery smolts that survive to return from the ocean, are domesticated from their initial rearing in the hatchery and exhibit anomalous behaviors, anatomical deformities, much lowered success spawning, and—in the wild—produce smaller numbers of offspring that make it to the smolt stage than do wild fish. It is a very problematic cycle and it has been degrading wild Pacific salmon populations for the 135 years that hatcheries have been collecting eggs from wild salmon, spawning them in buckets, rearing them, and releasing them into the North Pacific Ocean.
- When the eggs and milt of all the captured brood stock are mixed in buckets in hatcheries, the adaptive sexual-selection behaviors are bypassed. These behaviors have evolved over the millions of years that the present species of the Pacific salmon genus have existed. On the spawning gravels of their natal streams, prior to natural propagation, wild steelhead must exhibit the right sexual-selection behaviors during courting to be accepted as a partner and thus be able to reproduce. Wild salmon that do not exhibit the right behaviors do not get to spawn. This means that over hundreds of thousands of generations, only a small number of the wild Pacific salmon that can spawn will spawn.
“Breeding competition in Pacific salmon is especially concentrated and intense because most breed only once during one spawning season and then die, allocating all their breeding effort to one massive bout of reproduction.” (NRC 1996: 308).
Here is an unsettling thought. Spawning ground surveys I have read have shown that, when both kinds of fish are present, wild fish do not generally choose to spawn with hatchery Pacific salmon. Do the wild Pacific salmon that have flunked the sexual-selection behavior test with their potential wild partners, spawn with hatchery fish more readily? Is this another increment in the process by which hatcheries and fish farms drag down the numbers and undermine the genetic diversity of wild salmon populations?
- First-generation artificial steelhead produced from wild brood stock are less reproductively fit than are wild fish and second-generation artificial steelhead (that is the fish produced in the wild through natural propagation by hatchery parents) are even less fit with an estimated reduction in fitness of up to 40% per generation (Araki et al. 2007b). Wild-born (naturally propagated) offspring of artificial steelhead that survive to adulthood in the wild, do not leave as many returning adult offspring, as do the wild steelhead. This is true whether parents were both captive-bred or one was captive-bred and the other parent was wild (Araki et al. 2009). This is a direct negative influence of artificial Pacific salmon on wild Pacific salmon populations.
- Wild North Umpqua steelhead used as brood stock are killed and their genes are removed from their population’s gene pool forever. As near as I can figure, around 150 wild fish are killed every year by the ODFW to supply eggs for the next hatchery generation (Chilcote 2002). If there is an outbreak of disease in the holding pen or a water system failure, twice that number or even more wild fish may be taken as brood stock.
Based on list item #6 above, these 150 brood-stock wild steelhead will produce fewer returning artificial steelhead adults that will successfully spawn than will a 150 wild steelhead spawning naturally in their natal stream. I do not know how much of this discrepancy is do to the exhibition of aberrant sexual-selection behaviors.
- There is a measurable loss of heterozygosity, or genetic diversity, in the first generation of hatchery fish when using wild brood stock (Bakke 2000).
- Artificial Pacific salmon are reared in concrete or net pens that force the young fish to live densely packed together. These closely confined juvenile artificial fish create an unsanitary environment that readily hosts bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Because of this, hatcheries and fish farms require periodic dousings with antiseptics and antibiotics. Because we are talking about a water environment, these antiseptics and antibiotics are flushed into the host environment in some form. The waste excreted by these juvenile artificial fish has to be dealt with as well.
Simple probability says that, sooner or later, hatchery/fish farm operations will produce an outbreak of disease that influences wild fish in the host stream.
- At least five billion hatchery Pacific salmon smolts have been released into the North Pacific Ocean every year since 1991. Presently, hatchery fish make up around 80% of the Pacific salmon returning to streams in Washington, Oregon, California, and Idaho. They make up 95% of salmon returning to Japanese streams (Augerot 2005:34). Out-migrating wild smolts are put at an adaptive disadvantage with the much more concentrated artificial fish in the rivers, estuaries, and ocean. I do not believe these 5,000,000,000 smolts include fish-farm fish which are not intentionally released into the marine environment.
- Hatchery fish do not buffer wild fish from being caught. A long-known and well-tested mechanism called the “mixed-stock” fishing problem [Mixed-population mortality problem] explains how higher numbers of hatchery fish attract more anglers and this means that more wild fish are caught. More fish means more fishing pressure and more fish of all discrete populations that are hooked. The mixed-population mortality problem has caused the extinction of numerous wild populations. Most at risk are the populations with the smallest numbers of individuals.
The literature seems to have neglected to notice that this mixed-population mortality problem is also functioning with reference to predators during the out-migration of the artificial and wild smolts during the spring.
- One result of living densely confined and being fed all the fish chow they can eat is that . . .
“Hatchery-reared salmon are often more aggressive (and larger) than their wild counterparts for genetic or environmental reasons. Paradoxically, they also generally experience much higher mortality once released from the hatchery (i.e., lower survival from release as smolts to return as adults) than wild fish.” (NRC 1996:310).
- Pearcy (2002) documents evidence of competition between artificial fish and wild fish for the limited resources available in the ocean. Even though wild fish are demonstrably more fit and strong than are artificial fish, the mixed-population mortality problem playing out with regard to predators in the stream below the hatchery, in the estuary, and in the ocean means that more wild salmon are killed. The large numbers of artificial Pacific salmon also simply swamp the wild salmon and a higher percentage of wild fish are lost than would be true in an artificial fishless environment.
- The public debate about fish farms is couched in the proposed polar opposite terms of farmed fish versus wild fish. Especially damaging to true wild fish is the fact that hatcheries and hatchery fish are not referenced in this debate. Fish farms are a type of hatchery and the terms farmed fish and hatchery fish both need to be referenced as polar opposites to wild fish. If this is not done, hatcheries get another free ride in the public consciousness as being good for wild fish populations or at least not harming them when the truth is that hatchery salmon and fish farm salmon damage wild salmon populations in every way that it is possible to measure.
- Artificial fish behaviors interfere with critical behaviors of wild fish. Artificial fish are known to exhibit aberrant behaviors and these disrupt the wild salmon whenever the two types of salmon are in proximity to each other. Whether juvenile or adult, this interference makes it more difficult for wild fish carry out their complex adaptive life histories. This is particularly problematic when behaviors of maturing adults in freshwater are considered because adult salmon in freshwater are living off finite reserves of energy that have been acquired in the ocean.
At the pool, I have seen artificial steelhead rising to leaves regularly in the critical holding area at the top of the pool where the most heat-stressed steelhead are holding in the coolest water from the cold tributary enters just upstream from the refuge pool. Over the course of an afternoon on 7/18/2000, I watched as an artificial fish actively rose to leaves, flashed, and rubbed up against wild steelhead, regularly stirring all of the steelhead pod holding in this cool-water lie to move down the pool into warmer water.
- Poorly designed radio tagging experiments using gastric tags on the North Umpqua have killed wild steelhead and produced only problematic data. The use of gastric tags meant that even if the tagged fish got back to the ocean, it could not commence feeding and so died. These experiments were poorly designed because the local ODFW did not get a representative sample and because no attempt was made to determine whether a fish with a shot gun-shell-sized battery pack inserted into the esophagus with a fourteen-inch rubberized antenna coming out of its mouth behaved naturally. Minimally, the battery pack in the esophagus of the steelhead would interfere with a fish’s ability to control its buoyancy, something steelhead here in the pool do regularly by expelling air or rising and taking air at the surface. When I asked ODFW personnel this question about changed behavior, the response I got was, “Well, we don’t know that they [the gullet tags] do [change behavior]!”
- Artificial fish have exacerbated the negative effects of our industrialized resource manipulation, whether it is logging, municipal development, dam building, etcetera because of the erroneous belief that hatcheries will compensate for any populations or individual fish that are lost due to these manipulations.
- Hatchery public-relations efforts have perpetuated the fish-come-from-hatcheries mindset that allows anglers—if so inclined—to blithely ignore the conundrum that hatcheries and artificial fish fundamentally depend on the healthy gene pools of wild Pacific salmon populations. The practices of these same hatcheries lower the productivity of wild populations, as well as, gradually undermine the fitness and evolutionary potential (i.e. the ability of individual populations of fish to continue to adapt to the dynamic environments they live in and to not become extinct) of the gene pools of these same populations.
- Artificial Pacific salmon are measurably weaker and less resilient than are wild Pacific salmon and their numbers vary much more in response to environment change in the ocean, estuaries, and fluvial systems.
- Artificial fish and the rationales used for their perpetuation have been one of the most damaging—to my mind, the most damaging—influences on wild fish numbers and genetic diversity. Numbers of salmon presently returning to streams in Washington, Oregon, California, and Idaho are a small fraction of what they were even fifty years ago. Data pertaining to past-abundance is hard to get at since, generally, there are no records of fish species and abundance on spawning gravels that go back more than a few decades yet hatcheries have been in full swing for considerably more than a century. Most of the useful historic data comes from commercial catch statistics and canning records. Going from commercial documentation to the numbers of Pacific salmon that ran in a river system on a given year is largely a matter of extrapolation and, given the extreme diversity of life history types of wild Pacific salmon, will necessarily underestimate the original Pacific salmon numbers.
That said, in general, present adult Pacific salmon population numbers (including hatchery fish—which belong to no population) approximate 4%-5% of pristine population numbers.
The North Umpqua River reputedly has one of the two best sustaining runs of wild summer steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. Using North Umpqua River historic data as an example, during a recent profound El Nino year (1983), 905 artificial fish and 3,301 wild summer steelhead [total of 4,206 summer steelhead] were counted at Winchester Dam. In 1946, the Fish Commission of Oregon & The Oregon State Game Commission published a document titled The Umpqua River Study, A Joint Report in which it is documented that during another profound El Nino year, 1926, 13,000+ wild summer steelhead returned to the North Umpqua River. This is roughly four times the number of wild summer steelhead that ran in 1983. And the discrepancy between 1983 and 1926 is even larger than is apparent in the numbers alone.
By 1926, permanent and temporary “egg weirs” that largely block fish passage had been in place on the North Umpqua below the primary summer steelhead spawning water for at least twenty years and there had been commercial net fisheries in the river since the 1890s. Both the egg weirs and the commercial net fishery undoubtedly had drastic consequences on the number of summer steelhead that returned to the North Umpqua in 1926.
- Jim Lichatowich, the National Research Council, the Ecotrust people, and the Wild Salmon Center have recently made the task of getting at the results of the peer-reviewed literature easier with the publication of Salmon Without Rivers (1999), Upstream (1996), Salmon Nation (1999), and—by Ecotrust in conjunction with the Wild Salmon Center—Atlas of Pacific salmon (2005), respectively. Bill Bakke and his Native Fish Society have been dealing with this issue for many years, starting during a time when any general awareness of the liabilities of hatchery production was effectively nonexistent.
So, are there any positive things that artificial fish do for wild Pacific salmon populations? Not so far as I can tell. Artificial fish are like plutonium to wild populations of Pacific salmon. The one hundred thirty-five years of various kinds of artificial fish have been one long continuous series of hammer blows on the resilient basins ranged around the North Pacific Ocean and containing wild populations of Pacific salmon. At least 40% of these populations are gone now and more are seriously compromised. This has happened because of an all too human tendency to want what we want when we want it and to believe what we are told by supposedly reputable agencies if it is repeated enough times and seems to make sense. When it comes to artificial fish and wild populations of Pacific salmon, we need to learn to ask questions that are substantive and responsive, and that are not rhetorical or meant to sway our emotions.
- Araki, H., B. Cooper, and M. S. Blouin - 2009 Carry-Over Effect Of Captive Breeding Reduces Reproductive Fitness Of Wild-Born Descendants In Wild. Biology Letters, The Royal Society Publishing.
- Araki, H., W. R. Ardren, E. Olsen, B. Cooper, and M. S. Blouin, - 2007b Reproductive Success Of Captive-Bred Steelhead Trout In The Wild: Evaluation Of Three Hatchery Programs In The Hood River. Conservation Biology 21, 181-190.
- Augerot, Xanthippe, and Dana Foley - 2005 Atlas Of Pacific Salmon, The First Map-Based Status Assessment Of Salmon In The North Pacific. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Bakke, Bill M. - 2000 Hatcheries Change Salmonids in One Generation, in The Osprey, A Newsletter Published by the Steelhead Committee, Federation of Flyfishers. Issue No. 36, January.
- Chilcote, Mark - 2002 The Adverse Reproductive Consequences of Supplementing Natural Steelhead Populations in Oregon with Hatchery Fish. Draft. ODFW, Portland, OR, cited in Salmon & Survival, Why Native and Hatchery Salmon are Different, by the Coast Range Association and the Native Fish Society, Corvallis and Portland, respectively.
- The Fish Commission of Oregon & The Oregon State Game Commission
- 1946 The Umpqua River Study, A Joint Report
- Lichatowich, Jim - 1999 Salmon without Rivers. Island Press.
- National Research Council - 1996 Upstream: Salmon and Society in the Pacific Northwest. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
- Pearcy, William - 2002 How Many Fish Can The Ocean Hold? in The Osprey, A Newsletter Published by the Steelhead Committee, Federation of Flyfishers. Issue No. 43, September 2002.
- Woody, Elizabeth, S. Zuckerman, and E. Wolf - 1999 Salmon Nation, People and Fish at the Edge. Ecotrust, Portland, OR.