More than 80% of published scientific literature shows that salmon and steelhead hatchery programs have an adverse effect on wild populations. Sure, many of us already knew this, but a recently published literature review provides a clear picture of just how damaging hatcheries can be. “We found that the vast majority of studies reported some  level of adverse hatchery effects…The consistency in results over time suggests the science has matured to a point where we have a true, long-term understanding that hatchery salmonids harm wild salmonids much more often than benefit when they interact in nature,” said one of the primary authors, Dr. John McMillan PhD, of The Conservation Angler.

The impacts of hatcheries on wild salmonid populations include: increased predation, detrimental competition, and susceptibility and transmutability of disease; hatchery fish also can dilute strong, diverse wild gene pools with poor survival and reproduction traits.

Dozens of small Chinook salmon being moved from a net into a tank of water
Winter-run juvenile Chinook salmon being prepared for release at Coleman National Fish Hatchery on Friday, March 2. Approximately 29,000 endangered winter-run were released that morning into the North Fork of Battle Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River where they once thrived. The fish are from the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery captive broodstock program. USFWS Photo/Steve Martarano

While the results of this paper are clear, the potential management responses and future hatchery operations are far less clear. Keep reading for major takeaways from this new research.

  • The review–authored by prominent scientists from Trout Unlimited, The Conservation Angler, and other groups–examined more than 200 published papers that look into hatchery programs and focus on impacts on brown trout, steelhead, Chinook Salmon, and Atlantic Salmon.
  • The authors screened thousands of scientific papers to winnow down the papers included in this analysis; they were primarily looking at research that “Examined genetic, ecological, fishing, and/or disease effects of hatchery salmonids on wild salmonid abundance, productivity, diversity, and distribution.”
  • The overall impacts of hatchery salmonids were then categorized and labeled, ranging from adverse to beneficial.
  • “The majority were adverse: 144 (70%) studies reported an adverse effect on wild salmonids and another 26 articles (13%) reported a minimally adverse effect (Figure 4). Thus, 83% of studies reported some degree of adverse effects from hatcheries on wild salmonids. Only seven publications (3%) reported beneficial effects of hatchery salmonids on wild salmonids, while 17 studies (8%) reported no hatchery effects on wild salmonids, and 13 (6%) were classified as indeterminate.”
Infographic describing that fish hatchery salmonoids have a 70% adverse effect on wild salmonoids.
Check out this good summary from Trout Unlimited.

“It is important to take stock of the totality of existing information from time to time, particularly for complex topics that span several species and multiple continents,” said McMillan. ”Considering the volume of research and the tendency of managers and scientists to operate in regional or species-specific silos, we thought there was value in conducting a global review to fully evaluate the body of literature and determine what the weight of evidence says about effects of hatchery salmonids on wild salmonids, and ultimately, to create a database that allows people to easily access information they may not have been previously aware of.”

-NOAA Fisheries

While this review is undeniably useful, as it centralizes and conclusively distills peer-reviewed conclusions of the harmful impacts of hatchery salmonids, what comes next is far more uncertain. Throughout the United States, wild salmon fisheries are failing. Even a place like Alaska where spawning and rearing habitat is pristine, salmon runs are faltering–now, this is attributable to many factors, trawl bycatch, oceanic conditions influenced by climate change, and, yes, an industrialized hatchery production system is likely not helping either. The grim reality, however, is that hatcheries aren’t likely going anywhere in the near-term, but this paper and work by conservation group challenge that.

Hatcheries are frustratingly big money; this may seem like a rationale to axe money-wasting hatchery programs, but with Congressional funding comes local district jobs and politicians insulating those jobs, thus those hatcheries. Further, without hatcheries, much of the US west coast would have NO fishing and sustenance opportunities, as most of the runs along the west coast have reached Endangered Species Act designation levels or are nearing those low levels. So, in the near-term hatchery salmonids are likely here to stay.

This, however, does NOT mean that change and reform is not achievable. This paper provides the information to illustrate the harm that hatcheries have on wild populations to decision-makers. Maybe it’s time to re-think hatchery programs or prioritize certain river systems with healthy and suitable habitat as wild systems and reserve hatchery operations for only the most degraded or struggling rivers–just an idea. One thing is for certain, we are losing our wild runs of salmon and steelhead in the American West and should explore every opportunity to recover these incredible species, including a reevaluation of the United States’ industrial hatchery operations.

Read the full review HERE.

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