Will reviving B.C.’s declining salmon stocks require a rethink of hatcheries?

After 150 years of experimenting, it’s becoming clear that pumping more baby fish into the ocean may actually be making the problem worse

The arid heat of the Okanagan may feel like a long way from the ocean, but salmon are just as crucial to the Syilx Okanagan people as they are to the First Nations on the B.C. coast. More than a million fish used to migrate up the Columbia River every year to the Okanagan lakes. Scientists believe the historic First Nation salmon fishery at Okanagan Falls was one of the largest in the Columbia watershed, and salmon made up 50 per cent of the Syilx diet. 

“Salmon are a very important part of the culture,” says Howie Wright, the program manager for the Okanagan Nation Alliance Fisheries. “Even when there wasn’t a lot of salmon, they were always important.”

Dams, habitat degradation, pollution, overfishing and reduced water flows and high temperatures devastated the Okanagan salmon populations during the last 150 years. Returns hit an all-time low of 2,500 fish in the 1990s. The collapse prompted the Okanagan Nation to start working with Indigenous bands on the U.S. side of the border to return salmon to their former range. With money from U.S. dam mitigation funds, the Okanagan Nation opened a hatchery, initiated habitat restoration efforts and, more recently, developed an innovative portable hatchery program. 

It’s all contributing to rare good news for salmon in B.C. Returns to the Okanagan spawning grounds have hit 200,000 adult fish in recent years. 

“We’ll never get back to what we had historically,” Wright says. “Right now hatcheries are necessary for mitigation. But one day we’d like to not need them.”

But what appears to be working in the Okanagan isn’t succeeding elsewhere in the province, leading government officials to ponder whether a decades-old strategy of relying on salmon hatcheries needs to be nixed, in favour of more comprehensive planning that includes international cooperation.

“It takes a lot of money to run hatcheries,” says Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, a science-based charity focused on protecting and restoring B.C.’s wild salmon. “That’s money not put into habitat enhancement, science, monitoring or figuring out a better strategy for recovering salmon populations.”

Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, says the money that goes into establishing and maintaining hatcheries could go toward other important measures that help stabilize salmon populations. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

The overall number of salmon returning to British Columbia’s rivers has steadily declined, especially in the last decade. For example, the Fraser River sockeye, historically the largest and most carefully monitored population in the province, has seen the number of adult salmon returning to the watershed fall from an average of 9.6 million every year between 1980 and 2014, to a record low of 293,000 fish in 2020.

“Alarm bells are ringing, big time,” says Fin Donnelly, a B.C. MLA and the parliamentary secretary for fisheries and aquaculture. “We don’t want to see salmon go the way of the Atlantic cod.”

It’s been well-established for more than a decade that B.C.’s salmon populations are in trouble, but the province first addressed the issue in 2018 when it announced its wild salmon strategy, a plan for implementing policies to reverse the decline. The original strategy included a call for more investment in salmon hatcheries, Donnelly explains. And while he supported this at the time, he says he changed his mind after reviewing the emerging science — particularly a study by the the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, an intergovernmental working group, that found commercial salmon catches in 2020 were the lowest in more than 40 years, despite a steady increase in hatchery production. 

No ‘silver bullet’ solution for declining B.C. salmon populations

Releasing more fish into the environment might seem like an easy solution to declining numbers. But in nature, this rarely works. 

“Climate change has reduced the quality and quantity of the food for fish in the open ocean,” Hill tells The Narwhal. “So the idea of releasing more hatchery fish is like letting more cattle out into a field with less grass and thinking you’re going to get more and fatter cows.”

Hill adds that policy-makers in government and industry need to do a rigorous review of the risks and benefits of hatcheries to find adequate solutions, arguing that this type of detailed analysis has never been done before.

In the absence of such a review, Donnelly notes, “there is no smoking gun or silver bullet” to declining salmon populations. 

Donnelly is among a growing number of scientists, fishermen and politicians who have changed their minds about hatcheries. After 150 years of experimenting with hatcheries, it’s becoming clear that just pumping more baby fish into the ocean may actually be making the problem worse. 

“The science shows, in the past we’ve relied too much on salmon hatcheries as the solution to salmon’s problems,” Donnelly says. “Hatcheries are a tool, but if we don’t stop the bleed we will see the demise of the salmon.”

person collects sockey roe at a hatchery
Okanagan Nation’s kł cp̓əlk̓ stim̓ Hatchery, pictured here, has been a success story in terms of increasing salmon returns. Photo: Jeremy Williams / CRSRI

Being a salmon has never been easy. They’ve always faced natural threats — predators, floods, droughts, landslides — but human activity is increasingly their biggest obstacle. 

The problem of overfishing was identified as early as the late 1870s, when the state of California opened one of the first salmon hatcheries. The facility caught wild salmon returning to spawn, mixed the eggs and milt (sperm) by hand, incubated the fertilized eggs and fed the juvenile salmon before releasing them into the wild. The process has become more sophisticated but the mechanics remain roughly the same. A physical barrier, usually a weir, steers the fish out of the river and into a holding tank in the hatchery. Staff catch the fish, harvest the eggs and milt, mix them together, incubate the fertilized eggs in a controlled environment and feed the juvenile fish before releasing them into the wild. 

Protected from predators, floods and droughts, about 90 per cent of hatchery eggs hatch into juvenile fish, while less than 15 per cent of wild eggs do, according to a University of Washington study. The hatchery fish also have an advantage in the months they spend in freshwater. The hand-fed, bigger hatchery fish have up to a 13 per cent higher freshwater-rearing stage survival rate than wild fish, according to a review of research by National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

“The thinking is if you bypass the freshwater-rearing stage, you’ll put a lot more salmon into the ocean and a lot more will come back to spawn,” says Jim Irvine, a veteran research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, better known as DFO.  

people collecting sockeye roe
People collecting salmon roe at Okanagan Nation’s kł cp̓əlk̓ stim̓ Hatchery. Photo: Jeremy Williams / CRSRI

In Canada, salmon are a federal responsibility. DFO operates 23 hatcheries and partners with First Nations and community groups on dozens more. The DFO-run hatcheries are primarily production facilities: the goal is to release lots of fish to create opportunities for recreational and commercial fishing, which drive economic activity. The other hatcheries tend to be small and focused on conservation, rebuilding extirpated or declining stocks. 

While the sheer number of salmon released from hatcheries ensures more adult fish enter the ocean, hatchery fish are less likely to survive in the wild and return to spawn. So that bump doesn’t last, Irvine says.

Neither type of hatchery has ever recovered a salmon run to historic levels, he says. And as far as he knows, no hatchery in Canada ever closed because it wasn’t needed anymore. DFO continues to run them, Irvine says, to support opportunities for fishing and to sustain populations that would otherwise decline beyond viability.

Scientists worry hatchery fish harm wild B.C. salmon 

But there’s a catch: hatcheries may be reversing salmon evolution and making life harder for wild fish, Irvine says. As early as 1984, scientists have worried that the way hatcheries fertilize eggs is not the same as two salmon finding each other in the river, Irvine says, interrupting natural selection forces. Those hatchery-raised fish will return and spawn with wild fish, including in nearby “wild” streams. When researchers have compared the hatchery and wild-born salmon, in several different studies, most found the naturally raised ones have higher adult survival rates and their offspring are more likely to return to spawn.

Ironically, though, the biggest issue with hatchery raised salmon is that they compete with their wild brethren. 

Salmon populations have declined from B.C. to California, but in Alaska, Russia and Japan they’ve hit historic highs in the last 15 years. In a study Irvine co-authored in 2018, Irvine found the total biomass of salmon in the North Pacific today is more than twice the average between 1925 and 2015. Climate change played a role, Irvine explains: warmer temperatures increase production of the things salmon eat during the freshwater stage of their life, so they enter the ocean bigger and healthier. In the last decade, Alaska’s Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery, one of the largest on earth, was 50 per cent larger than the 20-year average. At the same time, the production of hatchery salmon has also increased, particularly in Alaska and Russia. Unlike in Canada, these hatcheries are run with the aim to grow salmon like beef cattle. Known as ocean ranching, these commercially run hatcheries release millions of juvenile fish into the ocean, like cowboys letting cows out to graze, and then commercial fishers catch 99 per cent of them as they return to the hatchery stream to spawn. 

Irvine and other researchers have shown that 40 per cent of the salmon biomass in the North Pacific in 2015 was from hatcheries. Only six per cent came from British Columbia. While the North Pacific is vast, Irvine and others have shown that salmon that were born in distant streams and hatcheries still interact and compete with each other in the open ocean, affecting the entire food chain. Whether wild or hatchery, B.C. “salmon share the ecosystem with other salmon, including from Asia and, particularly, from Alaska,” Irvine explains. 

Studies by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and salmon hatchery expert Greg Ruggerone showed that in years with especially abundant pink salmon numbers in the open ocean — the majority of which are hatchery-raised in Alaskan waters — other species return to spawn in lower numbers and weigh less. Spawning success also declines. 

As a result of the increased competition from hatchery-raised salmon, the existing populations of B.C. salmon are dying of starvation, returning to spawn skinnier and are less successful at spawning, Irvine explains.

‘A tragedy of the commons’

“We’re setting ourselves up for a tragedy of the commons,” says Randall Peterman, a professor in fisheries risk assessment at Simon Fraser University. The selfish economic interests of individual nations will lead to a catastrophe for the whole North Pacific. “We need an international discussion to control hatchery production before all anyone has is a few skinny fish returning.”

It’s a sentiment many fisheries scientists in the U.S. and Canada agree with. Representatives from both nations have raised the issue at the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, which brings all North Pacific salmon-producing countries to the table. But some Russian scientists don’t believe there is a food shortage for salmon in the Pacific Ocean, Peterman says. Though, he notes that those scientists have conducted their research on the western side of the Pacific, rather than the central and eastern side, where B.C. and U.S. scientists have found evidence of limited food. He believes salmon will continue to decline on the east side of the Pacific as long as the disagreement exists. However, in 2020, salmon returns all around the Pacific crashed. It might be the evidence and impetus to change their minds on the issue and open the door to co-operation around hatcheries, Peterman says.

“We’re setting ourselves up for a tragedy of the commons … We need an international discussion to control hatchery production before all anyone has is a few skinny fish returning.” Randall Peterman
Professor in fisheries risk assessment at Simon Fraser University
people collecting salmon roe

An international agreement could look like the cap and trade systems used for carbon emissions, he says. Using science as a guide, the commission would decide how many total hatchery fish to release across the North Pacific and put a price on each one. The nations would get an allotment and they could sell their share to other nations. Instead of managing salmon like they never left territorial waters, it would acknowledge the shared resource. 

“We need to get imaginative with our solutions,” Peterman says. 

And more co-operative at all levels of government.

That’s where Donnelly, the B.C. politician, comes in. While endangered species and fisheries are technically under  federal jurisdiction, many policy decisions that impact salmon habitat — like logging — fall under provincial jurisdiction. And the health of salmon populations impacts the province’s economy, ecosystems and relations with First Nations. The premier created Donnelly’s fisheries and aquaculture parliamentary secretary position in 2020, as part of the B.C. government’s wild salmon strategy. Beyond advocating for an international agreement on hatcheries, Donnelly is talking to First Nations to align the provincial salmon strategy with their interests and rights. He’d also like to do the same between the fresh and saltwater jurisdictions, combining the province’s efforts with the federal government’s $647 million Pacific salmon revitalization program, announced in June 2021.  

“I feel like we have a lot better chance of success if we co-ordinate our actions,” Donnelly says.

On a more regional level, there’s a push to mark all hatchery salmon by clipping one of their fins. U.S. hatcheries already mark all their fish, but Canadian hatcheries only clip about 10 per cent, says Owen Bird, the executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of British Columbia. He thinks production hatcheries provide opportunities to fish that wouldn’t exist without them, injecting an important economic and social impact on the province. Marking 100 per cent of hatchery-raised fish would allow researchers to better tease apart returns of hatchery and wild fish in their studies. And more knowledge and easier identification would create more opportunities for commercial and recreational fishers to target hatchery fish without endangering wild stocks, he says.

Any changes should be part of a bigger conversation about the ultimate goal of hatcheries, says Wright, with the Okanagan Nation Alliance Fisheries. It was something the Okanagan Nation discussed before opening the kł cp̓əlk̓ stim̓ Hatchery in 2014. 

Howie Wright posing outside
Howie Wright, the program manager for the Okanagan Nation Alliance Fisheries, hopes that the new type of hatcheries being pioneered right now will help in salmon recovery. Photo: Jeremy Williams

As one of the only non-DFO licensed facilities in the province, they had the freedom to operate differently. They looked to Washington State for best practices. Reforms there in the early 2000s pushed their hatcheries to be more innovative, adopting new science quickly, whereas DFO often changes slowly, Wright says. For instance, kł cp̓əlk̓ stim̓ uses a maximum of 10 per cent hatchery fish for brood stock. “We want to reduce the hatchery influence as much as possible,” explains Wright. The federal department only recently shifted its guidelines to require the hatcheries it runs to use a larger percentage of fertilized eggs that come from the wild and to ensure that less than half of the eggs are originating from hatcheries.

Independence has also allowed them to develop a new type of hatchery, which Wright calls hatchery in a box. The modular concept builds a small-scale fish hatchery inside a shipping container. Portable, with a small footprint and low cost, it makes it feasible to rebuild salmon runs in individual streams and rivers.

“These tributary populations are important to First Nations, but aren’t big enough to justify a traditional hatchery,” Wright says.

Piloted with sockeye salmon in the Okanagan, it’s now being used across the province by other First Nation groups and with other species. Wright thinks it will play an important role in the recovery of salmon in B.C.  — not least because of the price. A traditional hatchery costs millions to build and millions more to run. A hatchery in a box costs $100,000 to set up and thousands to run. 

The difference is equally large in mindset.  

“When you build a major facility, you’re invested in it,” Wright says. “The biggest problem with most hatcheries is that we want to keep running them.” 

In comparison, the Okanagan Nation started kł cp̓əlk̓ stim̓ Hatchery with the goal of closing it one day and designed the hatchery for obsolescence. It’s as easy to move to another stream as it is to set up.

This subtle shift in thinking is key. While some commercial and sport fishers and countries in the eastern Pacific disagree about the ecological impact of ocean ranching and production hatcheries, most experts think small-scale, conservation-focused hatcheries can be an important tool in rebuilding salmon stocks — if the root causes of the decline are being dealt with and the hatchery is careful to minimize harm to wild populations  

But there’s also a growing recognition that once those populations are sustainable, most of the time salmon just need us to get out of the way. 

Updated on Nov. 15, at 10:30 a.m. ET: this article was updated to clarify a statement made by Randall Peterman, explaining that while some Russian scientists do not think that there is a shortage of food for salmon in the Pacific Ocean, those scientists have done their research in the western Pacific, whereas researchers in the central and eastern North Pacific have found evidence of a limited food supply. Their differing viewpoints on the issue of food supply reflect the different conditions in those parts of the ocean.

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