The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Fish Hatcheries

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Fish Hatcheries

Human beings are capable of great things. We erected our own massive metropolises, put a man on the moon, and even invented the freaking internet! But we’ve done some terrible things as well. In our haste or perhaps our hubris in trying to mold this world, we have often hurt it.

Our forefathers shaped the natural world to fit our needs and didn’t consider the effect such actions would have on nature. Trees were cut down, rivers dammed, and entire species were either driven out or completely wiped out. Thankfully as we became more advanced and science evolved, we began to recognize the mistakes made by the previous generations and tried to rectify them. We created rules and regulations to help stem the tide—we planted trees, we preserved and saved animals like the bison—and of course, we built fish hatcheries.

Fish hatcheries were created with the best of intentions to help restore and maintain fish populations. However, there are a lot of different sides to these fish stocking systems, and while they’re all well-intentioned, not all of them may have been as good for the fish as we hoped.

The Good

The first federal fish hatchery, known as the Baird Fish Hatchery, was established on the McCloud River in California in 1872. It was created to help maintain wild salmon populations in the McCloud and surrounding waters, as well as to aid in establishing fishable populations of salmon, trout, shad, striped bass, lobster, and catfish in other states as well as overseas. It was a radical concept, and at the time a successful one that led to the creation of many fisheries for anglers to enjoy, such as the Pacific salmon and steelhead runs in the Great Lakes. The hatchery system also increased the population of many native species in the California area which had been decimated by overharvesting. Many states began to follow suit after California’s success, building their own fish hatcheries to help create fisheries and reestablish populations of native species.

A great example of one of these successful hatchery systems can be found in the state of Vermont. The Green Mountain State’s five fish hatcheries have been releasing more than 1.5 million fish into the lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams that cover Vermont’s landscape, helping to create fisheries in places that otherwise would have none.

“We prioritize stocking in places that otherwise wouldn’t be able to support wild trout with good public access to provide that opportunity,” Vermont Fisheries Biologist, Lee Simard said. “These are ‘put and take’ fisheries we’ve established in rivers, lakes, and ponds that the public can access to catch and harvest trout where, due to water temperatures or other factors, there otherwise would be no opportunity. It’s a great system because while some anglers prefer to hike into the backcountry and fish small streams for wild brook trout, others prefer to go to a pond and fish for stocked fish. There are two types of fisheries that we provide for folks to get outside and engage with the natural world around them.”

Vermont’s hatchery system is also working to help reestablish native fish populations that in days gone by, have been severely damaged either by overharvesting or other environmental factors. One of the most successful of these stocking programs in the state has occurred in the vast waters of Lake Champlain which sits on the border of Vermont and New York. Two of Champlain’s most iconic native species, the lake trout and the Landlocked Atlantic salmon, had all but vanished from the lake at one point. Thanks to the hatchery systems in both Vermont and New York, the fish are on their way back.

“Lake trout were native in Lake Champlain but were extirpated from the state due to several factors many years ago,” Simard told Meat Eater. “So, now we stock to try to restore a native population. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that we started to see the first recruitment of wild lakers in Lake Champlain. And now that we’ve seen successful wild reproduction, we’ve backed off on stocking a bit so that the wild population is maintained and only stocking enough to reinforce the population and that fishery.”

While Mackinaws are making a mighty comeback, restoring Atlantic salmon is proving a bit more tricky.

“Landlocked salmon are another good one where we’re trying to restore a wild population, working with dam removal and land management to establish wild runs,” Simard said. “We’ve seen some success, but in order to maintain a population at this time the salmon fishery is maintained through continued stocking until we start to see healthy wild populations and then we’ll back off from it.”

It’s important for the stocking programs to back off from or completely desist stocking efforts once a wild population of fish has been established. For when stocked fish and wild fish intermingle, the results can be disastrous for the entire fish population.

The Bad

One of the biggest problems with early fish hatchery research was that it was done with an entirely agricultural mentality. After all, it has always worked for us with conservation efforts in the past. If there was only one tree left, we plant another, and now there are two. If there were only a couple of animals left in a certain area, we breed some more or shuffle in a few from other places, and now they’re thriving. The problem is though, that’s not necessarily how it works with fish.

“When you stock a catchable fish on top of a wild fish that is already there, they both start to compete with each other,” Montana’s Fish Hatchery Bureau Chief, Jay Pravecek told Meat Eater. “So, they both lose out. The wild fish die off, and the hatchery fish die off—making for an empty fishery.”

Montana was one of the first states to realize this concept and to take steps to limit their fish stocking efforts. It was believed in the early days of the state’s hatchery programs that since Montana was a true angling destination, the more fish they stocked in the rivers, the more fish would be caught by fisherman and, the better the local economy would be.

However, it was soon discovered that the stocking efforts were actually hurting the fishery. In the 1970s a state fisheries biologist named Richard Vincent began to notice an overall decline in the populations of trout in heavily stocked areas of the Madison River. He proposed an experiment that the state cease stocking these areas and instead start stocking portions of the river with healthy wild trout populations that had never been stocked before.

The results were that in the areas of the river that were no longer being stocked, the trout population doubled and in areas that had never been previously stocked and now were, the trout population was cut in half. The state did further studies and concluded that stocking fish was destroying what was trying to be protected. From these results, the state created a policy that any waters with self-sustaining trout populations could not be stocked.

“Now we only plant fish in reservoirs and lakes, primarily to provide fishing opportunities for the public,” Pravecek said. “We do however still stock certain streams and rivers to restore native species such as Westslope Cutthroat and Grayling but only as a restoration project until those fish establish a foothold in the system and then we’ll stop. Because if you leave a wild population of fish alone, it gets into a stable place. If you stock it, it becomes a territorial issue, where the stocked fish and the wild fish compete or for lack of a better word fight with each other, and everybody loses.”

This is all well and good in places where the fishery is stable. However, in places where a fishery has had to be restored, and both anglers and entire economies have become dependent on that stocked fishery to maintain a way of life, things are a bit different. In areas where hatchery fish and wild fish clash, two very distinct factions of fish and fisherman have begun to collide, and things have gotten ugly.

The Ugly

On the West Coast, where fish hatcheries were first conceived and the home of some of the greatest salmon and steelhead rivers in the country, an all-out war is taking place. It’s being fought by those who believe that the hatcheries are necessary to maintain the fisheries and those who believe that they are destroying not only the fish but the rivers themselves.

The problem originated in areas that have been over-developed. Areas of California, Oregon, and Washington were logged heavily during the 19th through the Mid-20th centuries. That extensive logging, along with the need for dams and agricultural fields, blocked natural fish migration routes on larger rivers and destroyed many of the small feeder streams that trout and salmon need to spawn. This led to fish and wildlife departments installing fish hatcheries as a means of maintaining fish populations and fisheries, an act many see as necessary.

“Two-thirds of the hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest were built to mitigate lost natural production. As we have changed and developed the landscape, natural fish production has been destroyed. Millions of people now live where salmon and steelhead once did, and the natural landscape has been changed forever,“ Director of the Hatchery and Wild Coexist Campaign, Dave Schamp, said.

“Today laws are in place to help protect fish habitat, but that hasn't always been the case, and our forefathers decided fish weren't as important as people,” Schamp said. “Restoring natural habitat and increasing natural fish production is very expensive and is a slow process. We need to continue to pursue protections and improvements, but the reality is fish continue to lose out. Bottom line: without hatcheries, there are very few fish to harvest.”

Schamp and many others believe that without fish hatcheries both the commercial salmon fishing industry and anglers who enjoy and depend on salmon and trout as a food source will be unable to continue their way of life. They believe that because the different watersheds have been so corrupted by over-development that they can’t maintain a healthy enough population of wild fish to meet the demand.

“Here are the numbers, 75% of the salmon harvested in the Puget Sound come from hatcheries; 90% of the steelhead harvested in Washington come from hatcheries; it's estimated that up to 70% of the salmon harvested off the coast of California come from hatcheries; and, here is the big one—90% of the salmon and steelhead swimming in the Columbia River begin their life in a hatchery. Pretty obvious that without hatcheries there are very few salmon and steelhead to harvest, and many fisheries would no longer exist,” Schamp told Meat Eater.

However, there is another side to the argument. For many of the rivers that have such heavy fish stocking policies, there are still populations of wild fish. Fish that are continuing to migrate, feed, and swim in these rivers as they have done since the beginning of time, are now intermingling with the hatchery fish. Many believe that the competition between the hatchery and wild fish is part of the reason that so many of these fisheries are struggling and that without the hatchery fish, the wild fish would stand a better chance to recover.

“Oftentimes, genetic introgression is a concern—that is, mating between wild and hatchery fish, which leads towards homogenization of the gene pool,” Ph.D. fisheries scientist and MeatEater contributor, Stephen Klobucar said. “Meaning that hatchery fish are often similar genetically across the population of released fish whereas wild, native fish have adapted and are genetically diversified based on the environment and other conditions over a long period of time.”

That doesn’t sound so bad, the solution to pollution is dilution, right? Well, that’s not quite how it works with genetics.

“A more genetically diverse population allows for survival and persistence under changing conditions, as they've adapted and evolved over time,” Klobucar said. “The overall fitness (e.g., growth, reproductive output) of hatchery fish is generally lower than that of wild fish so the greater similarity of the genetics of a population to hatchery fish genetics, the higher the likelihood a population could be negatively affected by change, whether that be natural, or human-caused. Further, more diverse (wild) populations allow for a better chance of recovery after a population is diminished, again by environmental conditions or happenings, like wildfire, or harvest by humans.”

Additionally, there are many out there who also believe that the fish hatcheries are polluting the water, making it even harder for the wild fish to establish a foothold and repopulate the rivers and streams as they once did, leading many to call for an abolishment of fish hatcheries all together.

“My problem is that they dump a hatchery on a beautiful, wonderful spring, literally on top of a spring, for the raising of hatchery fish,” Idaho and Oregon fishing guide Chris Gerono said. “So instead of this lovely luscious water supporting insects and fish, they overload this water with hatchery fish, so it far exceeds the carrying capacity of the spring and saturates the water with trout and salmon effluence which adversely affects the ecology of the stream. To the point where the spring flow is eventually void of everything, from invertebrates to the trout.”

Gerono also believes that the methods that hatcheries use to collect roe and milt from wild fish are having an adverse effect on the fishery.

“Anadromous fish have the deck stacked against them these days. Between warming rivers and oceans and near impassable dams, these fish need all the help they can get. The methods hatcheries are using to collect the reproductive capabilities for hatcheries, a wild steelhead and salmon’s future, by killing and stripping the fish seems more and more bleak without all of these issues being addressed.”

Wild fish advocates also think that many of the hatcheries established on the West Coast have been put there for simple political and financial gain, getting anglers to invest in hatchery programs that in the end are a waste of money. Hatcheries cost millions of dollars to install and maintain as a subsidy to both commercial and recreational fishermen, paid for by tax increases. This would be a workable system if it was yielding cost-effective results, but it’s not.

Between California, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, citizens are paying hatcheries to release nearly 280 million salmon and steelhead per year, which has cost billions of dollars. When those fish are released as smolts, they go out to the Pacific Ocean, only returning on the investment made once they come back to the rivers from whence they came to be caught by anglers. As survival rates are so small in the Pacific, with some being as low as 1% (10,000 salmon survive out of 1,000,000 stocked) of the fish making it back to the river, the cost-to-benefit ratio is almost non-existent.

One study showed that one hatchery was releasing spring Chinook Salmon with returns so low that it was costing the hatchery over $68,000 dollars per harvested fish! While this example is extreme and most harvested fish cost far less, it is an example of the perceived waste of critical funding that has gone into many fish hatchery programs.

Still, hatchery advocates believe that this money is well spent because it not only goes into the raising and maintaining of the fish but also into scientific research to minimize the potential negative impacts on wild fish populations. They point out that hatcheries are now producing more fit fish that are better capable of intermingling and thriving alongside their wild counterparts and to stop stocking now would mean all that money would be wasted.

“There is no known instance in Oregon or Washington where the removal of hatchery fish resulted in a significant increase in naturally occurring fish absent other significant contributing factors,” Schamp said. “Hatchery fish are not the problem, in fact, they are a big and important part of the solution. Science has demonstrated that properly designed and implemented hatchery programs can improve naturally occurring fish numbers and there are an increasing number of examples where hatchery fish have been successfully used to reestablish extirpated runs.”

Whichever side of the coin you fall on, there is no denying the fact that there are both benefits and detriments coming from the fish hatcheries on the West Coast, and until some sort of neutral ground can be found the two sides will continue to battle. As to what this means for the future of the rivers and its fisheries—only time will tell.

Paved with Good Intentions

Human beings are perennial pokers of the bear, believing that no matter what we do to the natural world for our own gain, we will eventually be able to fix it. In many cases, we’ve been successful, such as with the reestablishment of wild turkey and elk populations which were under serious threat at the turn of the century.

Yet when it comes to fish hatcheries, there is no telling yet whether they’ll be beneficial for us in the long run or are simply acting as a bandage placed over a festering wound. In the end, because of their loss of habitat and our mistakes with fish management, we may have to give the fish a helping hand by continuing to use hatcheries, or it may just be best that we back away just let nature take over, which is a scary thought because it’s then completely out of our control. Yet if we want fish for the future perhaps we should trust them to do what they have been doing for thousands of years—swimming against the flow and against the odds, but still making it home.

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