This is part two in a three part series on Alaskan salmon ranching. Click link to view part 1: Alaska’s Little White Lie.
Salmon aquaculture in Alaska can be described multiple ways: salmon ranching, salmon enhancement and salmon hatcheries. Because they don’t grow the fish to full size for market and because of the stigma they and others have attached to salmon farming, Alaska works hard to distance itself from any association with the aquaculture industry by claiming that 100% of its fish is wild.
The Pacific Ocean, like all the other oceans in the world, has been heavily fished for centuries. In the past century, all the world’s oceans have been fished nearly to the limit thanks to the advent of highly industrialized fisheries. In the ‘70s this was clearly felt by both the U.S. and Canada and both countries expanded their hatchery programs to make up for some of the lost fish.
Over time the two countries went in different directions. Alaska focused on industrial scale hatcheries to supplement the commercial fishing industry. B.C. focused on a mix of smaller, government funded, hatcheries to enhance specific wild stocks and to supplement commercial fisheries, and also allowed private salmon farming companies.
Hatcheries have played an important role in conservation. They have contributed to the conservation of salmon populations and also to the conservation and restoration of watersheds crucial for salmon habitat. They have also contributed to the increase in knowledge about the salmon life cycle and how human impact on the land affects salmon populations. Without hatcheries, our wild salmon would be in a far worse state.
However they were not enough to stop the general decline in wild salmon productivity which was inevitable once we started catching up to 80 per cent of them, every year.
That is why people started trying to farm salmon instead of catch them.
As salmon from salmon farms started making waves in the market, Alaska started its campaign against B.C. farmed salmon. The history of hatcheries is closely tied to economics. However, for this article I am focusing on the risks and benefits of hatchery production. I will take a closer look at the money trail behind hatcheries and the wild vs. farmed debate another time.
Here is an overview of the history of hatcheries:
“The artificial propagation of fish has been around a very long time, but the use of hatcheries to increase the abundance of salmon on a large scale is relatively new, within the last 160 years. Modern hatchery programs for salmon have their roots in a discovery made by two French fishermen in 1841. The fishermen, Messieurs Gehin and Remy, observed salmon spawning for several nights, then developed a procedure for stripping eggs from female salmon and fertilizing them. They also devised apparatus for incubating and hatching the eggs. In the late 19th century, the belief that humans should control the reproduction of economically important fishes and, that in doing so they would increase the abundance of salmon had strong intuitive appeal. The basis for that belief was found in agriculture.
Early proponents of artificial propagation of fishes compared hatcheries to farms. The comparison with farms gave hatcheries instant success by analogy. Agriculture had increased the production of important human foods so it was natural to conclude that fish farms (hatcheries) would increase the production of fishes. This success through association with agriculture was unfortunate because it removed the incentive to actually determine the performance of hatcheries. Thirty-five years after the two French fishermen made their discovery, hatcheries were propagating Pacific salmon and the U. S. Fish Commission was proclaiming that artificial propagation would make salmon so abundant that there would be no need to regulate harvest or protect habitat. Such hyperbole had no basis in science, but those who wanted to maintain high harvest rates or alter the habitat in salmon rivers accepted it as fact.
As a consequence, hatcheries were constructed and used as a substitute for habitat protection and harvest regulation. It is now generally recognized that accepting hatcheries in lieu of habitat and rational harvest was not an effective tradeoff. Artificial propagation was not able to maintain the abundance of salmon. However, as wild populations declined with the loss of habitat and under the pressure of excessive harvest, the small number of adults that hatcheries were able to produce became a larger and larger part of the total run. Salmon of hatchery origin are now the dominant type of fish in many watersheds [in the Pacific Northwest].
…Hatcheries are here to stay. Whether or not the original goal of hatcheries was valid, we did trade habitat for artificial propagation and in many rivers that habitat will not be restored to even a fraction of its original productivity. In many of those systems, natural salmon production will need to be augmented with hatcheries.”
Sockeye salmon at a Columbia River hatchery
For years the debate over hatcheries has raged. Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Those who are cautious about hatcheries generally agree about the risks involved.
In May 2012 the Wild Salmon Center’s program State of the Salmon: Knowledge across Borders uploaded a collection of more than 20 studies by leading university scientists and government fishery researchers in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Russia and Japan. The collective evidence from these studies suggests that salmon raised in man-made hatcheries can harm wild salmon through competition for food and habitat. The research volume was published in the May issue of Environmental Biology of Fishes.
From their press release:
“The genetic effects of mixing hatchery fish with wild population have been well-documented,” says journal editor David Noakes from Oregon State University. “But until now the ecological effects were largely hypothetical. Now we know the problems are real and warrant more attention from fisheries managers.”
…says Pete Rand, “…What we’re seeing here in example after example is growing scientific evidence that hatchery fish can actually edge out wild populations.”
Losing wild fish would mean losing the genetic diversity that has allowed salmon to survive for centuries. Unlike hatchery fish, wild salmon population have a range of highly specialized adaptation to the natural environment. These adaptations not only help them return to their home streams to spawn, but also increase their ability to withstand environmental changes like increase in ocean temperature and extreme variations in stream flows. Hatchery fish, as the name implies, are hatched from eggs fertilized in a controlled environment and raised in captivity until they are big enough to release into the natural environment. They lack the genetic diversity of wild fish that provides insurance against fisheries collapse.
“…These studies suggest that even more caution is needed to make sure hatchery programs keep wild salmon safe, and don’t inadvertently hurt the long term potential of salmon runs,” says Rand.
… The increasing global demand for salmon has resulted in calls to further expand hatchery production, especially in Russia and Alaska. In a 2010 open letter to Alaska hatcheries, seafood processors proposed increasing pink salmon hatchery returns by 25%-115% over the next five years. Similarly, Russian hatchery managers stated in 2010 that Russia is planning to build 23 new hatcheries that would increase the country’s hatchery production by 66% or 680 million fish.
…says Rand “…The prospect of additional increase in hatchery production is worrisome for the long-term survival of wild salmon.”
The press release also notes that one of the new studies indicates that chum salmon from Asian hatcheries, mostly from Japan, have caused declines in wild chum salmon populations in Alaska. Genetic data is showing that the fish share the same feeding ground in the open waters of the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean. The abundance of adult chum salmon from hatcheries is now much greater than wild chum salmon so the authors are not surprised to see evidence of completion in the North Pacific.
It is also noted that competition will get tougher as ocean conditions change. The current patterns are able to support large populations of salmon but as these patterns shift, food availability for salmon could drop making it even harder for wild salmon populations to survive.
These recent findings echo older sources. Other risks are also worth noting:
Oregon business council:
Catastrophic Loss. Because hatcheries raise fish in large numbers that are restricted to relatively small space they are vulnerable to catastrophic losses of biological (e.g. disease) or mechanical (e.g. pump failure) origin.
Loss of Diversity. To reduce cost hatcheries, like factories, employ economies of scale. This leads to reliance on a few large stocks instead of a diversity of stocks of various sizes. This is equivalent to “placing all our eggs in one basket” and increases the risk of major disruptions in production during adverse environmental conditions.
Cost. The economic cost of replacing most or all natural salmon production with hatcheries would be prohibitive.
Loss of Genetic Diversity. In agriculture, where we do have a reliance on artificial production of crops, we maintain at great expense seed banks that attempt to collect and preserve the genetic diversity of important food crops. Those seed banks have proven to be absolutely necessary to maintain production. There is no equivalent seed banks for salmon genetic diversity except in the thousands of populations that still inhabit rivers across the landscape. Heavy reliance on hatcheries could erode the genetic diversity of salmon and threaten their long term productivity.
Evaluating Alaska’s Ocean-Ranching Salmon Hatcheries:
Hatchery fish are different than wild fish:
“Given the controlled environmental conditions in a hatchery, it is not surprising that fish reared under these conditions are markedly different than their wild counterparts in behavior, morphology, survival, and reproductive ability.
…Many studies have indicated that the hatchery-rearing environment can influence the behavior of salmon. Levels of aggression and antagonistic behavior appear to differ between domesticated and wild populations.
…Hatchery strains are typically more surface oriented than are wild fish. Most of the innate surface orientation of hatchery fish is likely an adaptive response to the practice of introducing food at the surface of the water (Flagg et al. 2000).
…Either inadvertently or intentionally, hatcheries often develop strains that spawn at different times than their ancestral stock. The most common practice is to select for early run timing by spawning a disproportionate higher percentage of the early returning fish. An advantage of a temporal separation from a management perspective is to separate stocks in a fishery and minimize interbreeding. A disadvantage is that if interbreeding does take place, the progeny of domestic strains and wild-domestic crosses may emerge prior to peak abundance of natural aquatic food sources and thus suffer higher mortality rates.
…Competition for resources between hatchery and wild salmon stocks has become a significant concern.
…Based on a review of the literature and discussions with biologists, geneticists, and fishery managers, it is widely believed that extensive ocean ranching may pose a threat to the ocean’s carrying capacity and the protection of salmon biodiversity.”
Do Salmon Hatchery ‘Sources’ Lead to In-River ‘Sinks’ in Conservation?:
“The cross breeding of wild and hatchery fish may diminish fitness in the wild. This creates a challenge in managing the stocks – the hatchery may be functioning as a critical conservation tool that itself may erode the natural population.”
The Great Salmon Run:
“Some critics question whether the Alaska salmon hatchery program may adversely affect Alaska’s natural wild salmon runs. One concern relates to the potential for competition for food between hatchery salmon and natural wild salmon, both for juvenile fish in near shore waters as well as in the open ocean. Another set of issues relate to the management of commercial fisheries in which fishermen are catching mixed stocks of hatchery and natural wild salmon. If large returns of hatchery fish are mixed with depleted runs of natural wild fish, there is the likelihood for over-harvests of natural wild fish runs. Finally, an issue which may grow in importance over time is the effect of Alaska’s salmon hatchery program on the “wild” image of Alaska salmon fisheries.
…In British Columbia, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans launched a Salmonid Enhancement Program (SEP) in 1977… A 2000 review concluded that it was difficult to say whether the SEP had produced any net gain of salmon, and that there was evidence to suggest that it had contributed to a net loss of wild salmon abundance, partly because of competition of juvenile hatchery fish with wild juvenile fish, and partly because of unsustainably high harvest rates on co-migrating wild salmon (Pacific Fisheries Research Council 2000).
…Overall, hatcheries add another dimension of complexity and ambiguity to the environmental, economic and social issues related to wild and farmed salmon. Once thought of as a way to restore and enhance natural wild salmon runs, hatchery salmon are now recognized as potentially harmful to natural wild salmon runs because of genetic interactions and competition for food and habitat in freshwater and marine environments. Particularly in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, there is an active debate among scientists, commercial fishermen and the public as to the appropriate role and scale of salmon hatcheries.”
Wild Salmon center:
- Hatchery-bred salmon are inefficient in foraging, and more aggressive, yet they tend to congregate during migration, and approach (rather than flee) potential predators;
- Hatchery-bred salmon have a higher number of eggs when reproducing, yet their breeding success is lower;
- Hatchery-bred salmon are less variable in shape and size when juveniles, and duller in color;
- Hatchery-bred salmon have higher survival rates during the egg-smolt stages, but lower survival from smolting to adulthood.
“On the basis of these distinctions, the Wild Salmon Center is concerned about the future genetic interactions between hatchery and wild salmon populations; especially the risk that the fitness of wild salmon populations will be degraded by long-term interbreeding between these populations.”
Despite the risks involved in hatcheries there are benefits such as the restoration of lost populations. In Washington streams where the fish returns were extremely low (0-12 fish returning) a brood program was started in 1977. In 1999 it saw returns of 800 adults. In B.C., on the Sunshine Coast, Chapman Creek had a record of 40-80 Coho returning before enhancement. In 1999 between 1500-2000 Coho returned to Chapman Creek; this provided an economic benefit to the Sunshine Coast through the recreational fishery.
School kids on a hatchery tour at Quatse River Hatchery near Port Hardy B.C.
Another benefit to hatcheries is their educational value. Elementary schools can visit hatcheries to learn about conservation and the salmon life cycle. Some schools even have small hatchery programs where eggs are brought to the school for class to study and are hatched in an aquarium for all the school to see. Those fish are then released (under guidance) into local streams or rivers.
Hatcheries also bring attention to habitat degradation and the importance of enhancement and restoration of spawning grounds. If there had been no major enhancement projects, other uses of water and watersheds would have had a much higher priority. There would have been a lower public awareness of habitat needs and without hatcheries there would have been a greater acceptance of the “writing off” of stocks. Awareness brought about by a focus on hatcheries allowed for governments to restrict development along rivers in order to protect fish. Development would have taken over the watersheds in the urban and developed areas in Washington and B.C., such as the Georgia Basin area and the Fraser River, had the hatchery programs not been started.
Hatchery salmon are not wild
Alaska has spent a lot of time and money promoting “wild” Alaskan salmon. In a brochure on the Alaskan government’s website the government defends the practices of their hatcheries by stating: “Alaska’s current hatchery program has enhanced and supplemented wild stock production for over 30 years, without detecting adverse impacts on wild salmon, which are at record levels of production.”
This statement assumes that hatchery fish are wild; wild salmon are at record levels of production; therefore hatchery programs have no adverse impacts on wild salmon.
But assuming hatchery fish are wild is a big mistake.
While the paper Evaluating Alaska’s Ocean-Ranching Salmon Hatcheries states many of the risks with hatcheries, it does point out that:
“It may be easy to identify risks that hatcheries pose for natural populations; it is not so easy to predict whether deleterious effects have occurred or, if they have, how serious the consequences will be.
Not all hatchery fish are identified by fin clipping because it would be too time-consuming and expensive. This makes it very difficult to observe a returning population and truly understand the effects hatchery fish have had on the wild population. We just don’t know which returning fish are from a hatchery, and which are truly wild. Hatchery fish are not monitored after they leave the river systems so it is also hard to know exactly what interactions and competition happen in the ocean.
Some of the studies published in the May edition of Environmental Biology of Fishes would agree to some extent that impacts are not easy to see but they are cautious because genetic changes have been proven and the evidence is mounting to support the other risk factors.
From the Heard 2011 abstract:
“Although some interactions between hatchery salmon and wild salmon are unavoidable including increasing concerns over straying of hatchery fish into wild salmon streams, obvious adverse impacts from hatcheries on production of wild salmon populations in this region are not readily evident.”
From the Grant 2011 abstract:
“However, virtually nothing is known about the effects of hatchery fish on wild populations in Alaska.
… Possible effects of these interactions can be inferred from studies of salmonids in other areas, from studies of other animals, and from theory. Numerous studies show a complex relationship between the genetic architecture of a population and its environment.
… Studies of salmonids in other areas show that hatchery practices can lead to the loss of genetic diversity, to shifts in adult run timing and earlier maturity, to increases in parasite load, to increases in straying, to altered levels of boldness and dominance, to shifts in juvenile out-migration timing, and to changes in growth. Controlled experiments across generations show, and theory predicts, that the loss of adaptive fitness in hatchery salmon, relative to fitness in wild salmon, can occur on a remarkably short time scale.”
From the Environmental Biology of Fishes introduction:
“Unintended effects of hatcheries are much more difficult and costly to assess than evaluating the benefits of hatchery production to provide harvest opportunities.”
Science is never “done”
It is apparent that more study needs to be done with regard to the direct effect hatchery salmon have on wild populations. However the risks that have been stated are real and are worth considering when looking at the fitness of wild populations.
To sum up
All human actions impact the environment, including hatcheries. Hatchery programs have important benefits, but they also carry risks of impacting truly wild stocks. Calling hatchery fish wild is dishonest and misleading, and their risks as well as benefits need to be considered, not cloaked in marketing and conveniently ignored.
The Great Salmon Run summarizes the issue of hatchery vs. wild vs. farmed salmon quite well:
“Recognize that the choices are not between wild and farmed salmon. It is essential to move away from the simplistic perspective that policy makers and consumers face a choice between wild salmon and farmed salmon. Salmon farming is a major world industry which is here to stay. Wild salmon is incapable of supplying the much larger domestic and world salmon market which has been created by farmed salmon. Natural wild salmon, hatchery salmon, and salmon farming all offer potential economic opportunities and benefits to consumers. All also have inherent risks. The real issues are how to take responsible advantage of the potential economic opportunities and benefits to consumers from both wild and farmed salmon.”