A decline of 70% in just 25 years.
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 precisely controlled environment selects for domesticated traits, then released into the wild. Hatchery fish tend to be smaller, weaker and less able to adapt to changing conditions. Threaten wild fish through increased predation and competition for food and habitat during mass releases, and through interbreeding on the spawning grounds.
Farmed Fish: Domesticated and raised by humans to thrive in high-density, aquatic feedlots, 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 the limiting factor in wild fish recovery, leaving 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.
Hatchery fish outcompete wild fish for resources and attract unnaturally high levels of predation, both from sheer numbers and through domesticated behaviour. Surviving hatchery fish can spawn with wild fish, reducing offspring survival rate of mixed hatchery/wild pairs by 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 often 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 doesn’t work, benefits only a few, 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 reliance on fish hatcheries to exercise these rights is not sustainable. Our goal is to work with tribal fisheries to focus on wild fish recovery and building more abundant, truly sustainable harvest opportunities.
Science shows 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. 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, reducing hatchery production and removing dams, 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.
The only way that salmon can be farmed that doesn’t interfere with wild salmon species is inside closed containment systems that make escaping impossible and totally prevents any pollution, diseases or parasites getting into the environment. Salmon is already being farmed in this way on a small scale but the industry needs a bigger push for a faster transition. That’s why we’re calling on governments to place a ban on open net fish farms in Iceland, Norway, Scotland and Ireland.
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 trout population was up 800% and the total trout biomass had increased by 1000%. On the Skagit River, four years after hatchery planting was stopped, the wild steelhead population had recovered enough that the long-closed spring steelhead fishery was reopened.
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.
There are some certifications out there for farmed salmon, and work being done to make closed containment systems sustainable – however, until closed containment solves for all associated problems, including what to feed fish in fish farms, particularly if the industry expands, we are not aware of any farmed salmon that doesn’t pose a serious threat to wild salmon and other species.
It depends on whether we’re looking at short- or long-term opportunity. Science demonstrates that wild fish populations, in the presence of hatchery fish, trend toward zero. Meanwhile, hatchery fish, 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 witnessed on the Toutle River, Skagit River, Eel River, countless rivers in Montana 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.