Wild Fish: Spawned, born and specifically adapted to thrive in the wild environment through natural selection, which ensures only the most genetically fit individuals survive to reproduce. Wide range of genetic and life-history diversity allows wild fish to better survive changing conditions and compromised habitat.
Hatchery Fish: Spawned and raised by humans in artificial habitats, where a precisely controlled environment selects for domesticated traits, then released into the wild. Hatchery fish are weaker and less able to survive in the natural environment or adapt to changing conditions. They also tend to mature at younger ages and smaller sizes than wild fish. Threaten wild fish through increased predation and competition for food and habitat during mass releases, and through interbreeding on the spawning grounds, where they pass maladapted genes to the wild population.
Farmed Fish: Domesticated and raised by humans to thrive in high-density aquatic feedlots, often in public marine waters, where they are raised to market size and harvested for consumption. Threaten wild fish with parasites, diseases (and the pesticides used to control them), and through competition and interbreeding during frequent escapes.
While it’s true that human activity—dams, development, resource extraction, etc.—have taken a toll on our rivers, science shows that wild fish, because of genetic and life-history diversity, survive better than hatchery fish, even in severely compromised habitat. In fact, the presence of hatchery fish is often a limiting factor in wild fish recovery, which can leave large amounts of prime spawning and rearing habitat unused. As climate change further threatens cold-water fish populations, the diversity and adaptability of wild fish will be crucial for survival.
Juvenile hatchery fish outcompete wild fish for resources and attract unnaturally high levels of predation, both from sheer numbers and through domesticated behavior. Surviving hatchery fish can spawn with wild fish, reducing offspring survival rate of mixed hatchery/wild pairs by up to 50% in the first generation alone. In other words, adding more hatchery fish frequently results in less total fish available for harvest.
While many people believe fish hatcheries are paid for exclusively with fishing-license sales, funding sources actually include city and state general funds, electrical utilities and a range of federal agencies. Which is to say, taxpayers and electrical-rate payers—ordinary citizens—are footing the bill for a system that’s driving wild fish to extinction and costs billions of dollars in the process.
Hatcheries are managed by a variety of state, federal, tribal and private, non-governmental entities.
We strongly support First Nations/Tribal rights to fish, hunt and harvest throughout their ancestral territories. However, science demonstrates that adding hatchery fish to a watershed does not create a sustainable fishery. Our goal is to work with tribal fisheries to focus on wild fish recovery and building more abundant, truly sustainable harvest opportunities.
Leading scientists and recent data indicate that the current plan—to feed starving Southern Resident killer whales with 60 million additional hatchery Chinook salmon per year—is misguided, expensive ($87 million), and likely, disastrous for the orcas, wild Chinook salmon and other aquatic life. And yet, the fact remains: The whales need more food and they need it now. The only real solution to provide more Chinook salmon for orcas in the short term, then, is to reduce harvest, particularly in West Coast open-ocean fisheries. This will require sacrifice by many of us, but if we’re serious about saving hungry orcas, we humans need to take less for ourselves.
Longer-term solutions benefit wild Chinook salmon, orcas and human fishermen alike. By recovering habitat, removing dams, reducing hatchery production and moving harvest to rivers and estuaries rather than open-ocean, mixed-stock fisheries, we can rebuild healthy populations of big, wild Chinook salmon. As wild salmon grow in size and abundance, they can provide the critical food needed by Southern Resident killer whales, and increased opportunity for recreational and commercial harvest.
According to leading orca scientists, no. Based on current orca-food-source research, increased numbers of hatchery releases would be of little benefit to Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW). A majority of hatchery salmon, as part of the domestication process, mature early and are too small, even as adults, to meet the caloric requirements of orcas. SRKWs need the increasingly scarce, large, wild Chinook salmon, which would be further depleted by the influx of hatchery fish.
The only immediate way to provide more food for Southern Resident killer whales is to reduce open-ocean harvest. Currently, the ocean fishery off the west coast of Vancouver Island alone takes 70% of the Chinook salmon large enough to benefit orcas. Moving fisheries to river mouths and employing selective-harvest techniques in the future would allow humans to continue harvest while increasing the number of large, wild Chinook available to orcas.
When the four Klamath River dams come down, we will witness one of the largest river restoration projects in North American history. A free-flowing Klamath represents prime wild salmon habitat and the possibility of a truly wild river. However, current plans call for the Klamath hatchery program to operate for at least eight years after dam removal. Given that we know hatchery fish are often the limiting factor in wild fish recovery, this would mean another lost opportunity, like the one we missed on the Elwha with its ongoing, post-dam-removal hatchery program. How can we best help the Klamath return to its natural abundance? Invest in long-term, science-based solutions: recover habitat and allow wild salmon to recolonize and repopulate the watershed as they’ve evolved to do over millions of years.
In a word, yes. It can be difficult, but there are a few simple rules of thumb that allow us to buy and eat salmon responsibly:
- Don’t buy Atlantic salmon and steelhead, which are, for the most part, either farmed in net-pens or harvested from endangered populations.
- Do buy wild salmon harvested from well-managed, hatchery-free fisheries. For example, sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay, Alaska, or reef-net-caught pink salmon from Lummi Island, Washington.
- Don’t buy Pacific salmon from open-ocean, mixed-stock fisheries. A majority of these fish are often of hatchery origin, and more importantly, open-ocean harvest cannot discriminate between abundant and endangered stocks of fish.
- Do ask your fishmonger, chef or server where their salmon is from and how it was caught. This may lead to further confusion, but encourages support for responsible fisheries and allows seafood eaters to make better choices.
The results of hatchery removal vary from watershed to watershed, dependent on habitat condition and how much genetic damage the remaining wild fish population sustained from interbreeding with hatchery fish. But it can happen fast: On the Toutle River in Washington State, seven years after the watershed was devastated by volcanic eruption (and the resulting cessation of the hatchery program), there were more wild winter steelhead spawning than in any other lower Columbia tributary. In Montana, within four years of stopping hatchery supplementation, the rainbow trout population was up more than 800% and their total biomass had increased by 1000%. On the Skagit River, four years after hatchery planting was stopped, the wild steelhead population, which had undergone a decades-long spiral, had increased to above the state’s current escapement goal.
It depends on whether we’re looking at short- or long-term opportunity. Science demonstrates that in the presence of hatchery fish, wild fish populations trend toward zero. Meanwhile, hatchery fish populations, due to inbreeding and domestication, trend toward zero over time as well. Which means if we keep relying on hatcheries, we will experience declining fishing opportunities, and eventually, no fish at all.
On the other hand, an investment in wild fish recovery, while it may reduce short-term fishing opportunity in some places, is the only option if we want our kids and theirs to enjoy cold-water fisheries in the future. The good news? In many watersheds, the recovery of wild fish populations after removing hatcheries—as we’ve experienced with the populations of the Toutle River, Skagit River, Eel River, countless rivers in Montana, Oregon coastal coho and others—will be faster and more robust than most anglers can imagine. Which means a return to abundant, harvestable numbers of fish, and expanded fishing opportunity for us all.