Home » Blog posts » Controversy flares up over proposed policy revisions for state salmon hatcheries

While some hatcheries are used to produce salmon for fishing, the North Fork Skokomish Salmon Hatchery, shown here, is designed to restore an extinct run of spring Chinook.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

Controversy flares up over proposed policy revisions for state salmon hatcheries

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UPDATE: NOV. 10, 2020
Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is seeking comments on a slightly revised draft of a new Hatchery and Fishery Reform policy. For details, please read the news release issued yesterday.
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A state policy revision that could boost salmon production at fish hatcheries in Washington state has raised red flags among scientists and environmental groups worried about potential damage to wild salmon runs.

State-owned fish hatcheries, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (Click for details)

The proposed hatchery policy (PDF 264 kb), under review by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, could derail a 20-year effort to implement critical hatchery reforms, opponents argue. Major concerns revolve around threats to the future of wild salmon populations — including declines in genetic diversity and increasing competition from large numbers of hatchery fish.

At the same time, a variety of sport and commercial fishing groups have thrown their support to increased hatchery production, saying that policies to protect wild salmon have reduced fishing opportunities while doing little to save wild salmon.

The proposed policy was to be the subject of a public hearing before the commission this week (meetings schedule), but the discussion was postponed until later.

Hatchery science principles

The proposed policy does not directly advocate greater hatchery production, but it opens the door to it by eliminating sound scientific principles approved in the original 2009 policy, according to Jamie Glasgow, director of science and research for Wild Fish Conservancy, an environmental group. In fact, he said, the policy under review contradicts advice from the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s own experts, who issued an extensive report on hatchery policies in January.

“Science is something that policymakers should consider,” Glasgow said, “but they feel they have the authority to ignore it based on their own agenda. Making hatcheries great again is not a formula for (salmon) recovery.”

I was impressed with the well-written report titled “A Review of Hatchery Reform Science in Washington State,” written by Joe Anderson and other research scientists with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and reviewed by the Washington State Academy of Sciences. If you would like to learn how hatcheries can affect wild salmon, this could be your short course in hatchery management.

The document describes both the benefits and threats of salmon hatcheries and how a well-run program can effectively produce fish for harvest while protecting wild runs — including populations of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.

On the positive side, hatcheries can allow for increased fishing with accompanying economic and social benefits. That includes fulfilling legal and cultural obligations to Indian tribes, which maintain a treaty right to fish in perpetuity. Hatcheries also can temporarily boost populations of wild salmon on the verge of extinction as people work to reduce problems that caused the decline.

On the downside, hatcheries produce fish that can compete with wild salmon and impair the recovery of affected stocks, the report points out. When fishermen go out to catch hatchery salmon, they inadvertently catch wild fish, which may not survive even if they are released.

Another issue — more difficult to explain yet key to understanding why wild salmon are worth protecting — is genetic diversity, the variety of inherent traits accumulated in a population. Over time, wild salmon become a reflection of the watersheds where they live. Genetic diversity allows salmon to adapt to both short-term and long-term environmental changes, and that’s especially important today, given the increasing pace of climate change.

“Minimizing fitness loss by managing gene flow between a hatchery population and its companion natural population has been a fundamental focus of hatchery reform,” the report states.

Hatchery-reform efforts

A key to hatchery reform in Washington state has been to decide if a specific hatchery run is to be “segregated” or “integrated” from the wild population. In a segregated hatchery, the goal is to reduce mixing between hatchery and wild salmon. That includes keeping the hatchery run distinct by establishing separations in time and location while carefully managing the fisheries.

In an integrated hatchery, the goal is to make the hatchery stock as similar as possible to the wild stock. That means spawning a fair number of wild fish for hatchery production while controlling the number of hatchery fish that enter streams to spawn with wild fish. One concern is that salmon adapted to hatchery conditions generally have less genetic diversity. Such “domesticated” salmon may not survive as well in the wild.

In the state hatchery system, producing fish efficiently and maximizing hatchery releases are among the reasons that we have seen a decline in fitness among wild salmon and steelhead, according to hatchery experts.

“Hatcheries have potential for large magnitude ecological impacts on natural populations that are not well understood, not typically evaluated and not measured,” the report states. “We recommend a more rigorous, consistent and intentional evaluation of cumulative hatchery effects across multiple hatchery programs operating within a geographic region.”

The report on hatchery reform was commissioned by the Fish and Wildlife Commission in 2018 as part of an effort to rewrite the 2009 hatchery policy to “allow for some flexibility in hatchery production” and to increase the number of salmon for Southern Resident killer whales. In fact, several hatcheries have already boosted salmon production in response to a recommendation from the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force.

The proposed hatchery policy (PDF 264 kb) places an increased emphasis on the “multiple purposes” of hatcheries. The document says individual hatchery plans “should reflect a balance between the need to minimize genetic and ecological risks to coincident wild populations and providing for the ecological and societal benefits of hatchery-propagated salmon and steelhead.”

Comments from the field

One of the first moves by the Fish and Wildlife Commission after deciding to write a new hatchery policy was to suspend the first three guidelines in the old 2009 hatchery policy. The first guideline, now suspended, called for following the recommendations of the Hatchery Scientific Review Group (HSRG), a panel of scientists that conducted formal reviews on more than 200 hatchery programs in Washington state.

The second suspended guideline called for specific standards to reduce genetic and ecological impacts of hatchery releases. The third suspended guideline related to developing watershed-specific plans to reduce the impacts of harvest and to improve habitat for local salmon and steelhead stocks.

The suspension of those three guidelines brought an immediate response from 77 fishery and environmental scientists, including 21 PhD scientists.

“It is not only a dangerous precedent regarding the management of our state’s fish and wildlife, it is as short sighted as ignoring the science of climate change,” states their letter to Gov. Jay Inslee (PDF 678 kb). The group asked for the governor’s help in reinstating the three guidelines while launching an independent review of the HSRG principles.

Nothing specific came from the letter, but the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office is among those expressing concern about the new policy. In a letter to the commission (PDF 277 kb), Erik Neatherlin, executive coordinator of the Salmon Recovery Office, asked that language be reinstated to “ensure compatibility between hatchery production and salmon recovery plans … “

The Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board, a regional salmon-recovery group, offered detailed comments on the proposed policy.

“Given the original focus on recovery, the expansion to include fishery benefits, without prioritization, is concerning,” the board said in a June letter (PDF 433 kb). “This could lead to hatchery programs being justified solely on the need to support fisheries, with potentially less emphasis on implementation of hatchery-reform actions supporting recovery …

“The long-term focus and emphasis should be on restoring ecological benefits by returning natural-origin salmon and steelhead to healthy and harvestable levels,” the board added.

Types of hatcheries

Under the new policy, the longtime designation of hatcheries as “integrated” or “segregated” would be changed to “conservation” and “fishery supplementation” with the addition of “mitigation” hatcheries to make up for damaged habitat.

“It is recognized that there may be hatchery program initiatives that may serve more than one designation category,” the proposed policy states.

An integrated, or conservation, hatchery could be programmed to produce more than enough salmon to fully utilize the available stream habitat. In that case, the excess could help feed killer whales and provide fishing opportunities under the proposed policy. In the past, fishing has rarely been targeted on depressed stocks during the rebuilding phase, and opponents are skeptical about how mitigation hatcheries would fit into the picture.

Ron Warren, director of fish policy for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the commission has not been talking about major operational changes during the policy review.

“I don’t believe we are trying to change the overall approach,” he said. “We are still trying to pay attention and prioritize those populations that are conservation-driven. We certainly don’t want to lose that genetic material and have a population go extinct.”

Ron said he expects some revisions to be offered before the proposed policy is put to a final vote, possibly in December. One likely change would be to add back language making hatchery plans more consistent with salmon-recovery plans, as called for by many people commenting on the proposed policy.

Written comments (PDF 7.1 mb) submitted on the proposed policy have been posted on WDFW’s hatchery reform policy website.

Several sport and commercial fishers have written letters and testified at commission meetings in support of the proposed policy. They say efforts to restore wild salmon runs have failed miserably, despite previous cutbacks in hatchery releases.

“HSRG along with other past deplorable salmon policies have been failures that have resulted in highly significant reduced salmon fishing opportunity and seriously depleted the ‘economic well-being and stability of the fishing industry’ that the commission is now addressing…,” states a letter from Dale Beasley, president of Coalition of Coastal Fisheries.

“Our Washington iconic salmon will continue to decline unless we address the full range of decimation,” he continued. “Without crucial hatchery production increases, the rest will not be able to put Washington salmon back on our dinner plates for all our citizens to enjoy, nor will the starvation of the orcas … be abated.”

Need for monitoring

One of the deficiencies in Washington’s hatchery program is a lack of scientific monitoring to determine the effects of hatchery fish on individual runs of wild salmon, according to research reports. A study designed to evaluate the progress and effectiveness of hatchery reform could not be completed as designed, because data was not available for 159 hatchery programs.

“While steady progress in hatchery reform implementation has been achieved over the last 10 years, more work is needed in all areas,” states the February report titled “WDFW Hatchery and Fishery Reform Policy Implementation Assessment.” “Lack of quantifiable harvest program goals and a comprehensive statewide monitoring and evaluation program are areas of special concern.”

While research is considered critical to operating hatcheries without harming wild salmon, money for monitoring has never been adequate. When salmon programs face budget problems, monitoring is often the first thing to get cut. One idea would be to require, by law, that a certain percentage of the budget going to hatcheries be set aside for monitoring and analyzing both local and cumulative effects of hatcheries.

We need such studies so that we don’t kid ourselves about the effects of hatcheries and the status of wild salmon populations. It is perfectly fine to consider social, cultural and economic values. Perhaps a cost-benefit study or environmental impact statement would be helpful to policymakers. But if our actions ultimately drive wild salmon to extinction, we need to consciously decide if that’s a consequence we can accept.

Further reading:

Wild Fish Conservancy writes that the hatchery-policy-review process has failed to follow state environmental laws. Letter dated Oct. 20, 2020.

From the Hatchery Reform website and the Hatchery Scientific Review Group:

6 comments

  1. G.I. James says:

    The scientists involved in wanting to limit hatchery production are living in a Pollyanna world that think that the habitat can and will be restored. There isn’t the political will nor enough money to do the recovery necessary or the willingness to address climate change and population growth. This is the reality and if they believe the obligation to treaties is just a result of best efforts and intent to do better they are sorely mistaken. These scientists are making a living off of fish while tribes with the supreme law of the land treaties aren’t able to.

  2. Bob McClure says:

    RE: The commission’s suspension of guidelines – “he third suspended guideline related to developing watershed-specific plans to reduce the impacts of harvest and to improve habitat for local salmon and steelhead stocks.” The third suspended guideline does NOT have anything to do with the improvement of salmon habitat. It has been shown time-and-again that the loss and degradation of salmon habitat (both freshwater and marine) has some of the most negative impacts on the production and survival of local salmon stocks. Without adequate (quantity and quality) spawning, rearing, and growing habitat there will never be sufficient salmon production to meet both the desires (e.g. recreational opportunities) or needs (e.g. recovery of self-sustaining populations, treaty obligations, subsistence). Washington State’s own data show that we are still loosing adequate salmon habitat at a greater rate than we are restoring it — until that changes, hatcheries (with ever improving management and monitoring) are the only viable option to meeting the production needs for recovery (maintenance of reasonable abundance levels), treaty obligations, and the other human desires for these populations. “Wild” salmon populations, as envisioned by some, can only become a reality when there is adequate habitat to support salmon populations that are capable of being self-sustaining and producing an abundance that provides spawning returns in excess of what is needed to reproduce.

    • Christopher Dunagan says:

      Bob, You say the third policy has nothing to do with habitat. Here is the text of that policy (now suspended):

      “3. Develop watershed-specific action plans that systematically implement hatchery reform as part of a comprehensive, integrated (All-H) strategy for meeting conservation and harvest goals at the watershed and Evolutionarily Significant Unit (ESU)/Distinct Population Segment (DPS) levels. Action Plans will include development of stock (watershed) specific population designations and application of HSRG broodstock management standards. In addition, plans will include a time-line for implementation, strategies for funding, estimated costs including updates to cost figures each biennium.”

      As I understand it, calling for watershed-specific plans for an integrated “all-H” strategy means addressing harvest, habitat and hydro as well as hatcheries across each watershed. Is that not the intent of the policy?

      • Bob McClure says:

        Christopher,
        It does say “as part of a comprehensive, integrated (All-H) strategy” but this activity (hatcheries) is only part of that plan and does not require WDFW to develop or coordinate that plan on a statewide level. In fact, other WA entities and tribes have, and continue to, develop those plans with WDFW as a partner, not the lead.

        If you look to NOAA for the “Puget Sound Salmon Management Plan” (1985. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/resource/document/puget-sound-salmon-management-plan) you will see that it is sorely outdated. On the watershed level, there are a multitude of documents, at various stages of development, mostly draft, which address all H’s, but focus on hatcheries, habitat, and harvest – largely leaving hydropower to the federal government. Also to be considered is the Pacific Salmon Treaty which obliges managers to produce salmon in hatcheries to balance those produced by Canada and/or supplement Canadian catches to offset US catches. The US hatchery production is also used, in part, to allow monitoring of US vs Canadian catches as well as US vs Treaty Tribes’ catches.

        Finally, development of these plans at any level involves a myriad of organizations and individuals (for example, see Puget Sound Partnership for a list concerned with salmon recovery: https://www.psp.wa.gov/salmon-recovery-overview.php) .

        I hope that you can begin to understand that there’s a lot more to hatchery programs, and reasons for hatchery programs, than can be covered in this article. The state’s policy to develop plans for “conservation and harvest goals at the watershed and [ESU/DPS] levels” means that there needs to be dozens of “comprehensive, integrated” strategies; one for each watershed that produces Chinook or coho salmon (remembering that we have no DPS or ESU for (most) coho, pink, sockeye, and chum salmon as they haven’t been listed as threatened or endangered).

  3. Bob McClure says:

    Additional support for my previous comment (2016. US ACOE, et al.) https://wdfw.wa.gov/sites/default/files/2019-06/Puget%20Sound%20Nearshore_Final-Feasibility-Report-EIS_2016_0.pdf :
    Six major changes to the physical characteristics of the nearshore have been identified:
    1. Large river deltas have significantly reduced in size (27% decrease in shoreline length
    due to tidal barriers and armoring).
    2. 35% of historical coastal embayments have been lost by being filled in or disconnected
    by tidal barriers.
    3. Sediment input has been disconnected at beaches and bluffs (over 25% of the shoreline
    is armored)
    4. 74% of tidal wetlands surrounding the shores of Puget Sound have been lost.
    5. The Puget Sound shoreline has become shorter and more artificial, decreasing in length
    by 15%.
    6. Many shorelines are experiencing multiple stressors and cumulative impacts.

  4. Christopher Dunagan says:

    UPDATE: NOV. 10, 2020
    Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is seeking comments on a slightly revised draft of a new Hatchery and Fishery Reform policy. For details, please read the news release issued yesterday.

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