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Hail Mary Hatcheries

The Russian River represents one possible future—perhaps the most likely one—for many other rivers on the west coast of North America: they will have hatchery salmon or no salmon at all. In this heavily developed watershed, climate change is already escalating droughts, fires, and floods, providing a preview of what may be in store for other regions. As wild stocks decline due to environmental change and other pressures, the hope is that facilities like Warm Springs, often described as “conservation hatcheries,” can keep salmon runs intact until their habitats are restored. It’s a task that sometimes verges on the impossible. As Mariska Obedzinski, who has led California Sea Grant’s coho monitoring program in the Russian River for almost 18 years, puts it, “It can feel like one step forward and five steps back.”

Hatcheries hold up a mirror to the stubborn belief that salmon can exist without intact habitat. On the west coast of North America, they have been used for over a century to supplement wild salmon in places where logged, dammed, and developed watersheds can no longer support abundant runs. But can salmon raised in captivity really replace wild ones? It’s a question I’ve been pondering for years, and, full disclosure, I once coauthored an opinion editorial with a consortium of salmon conservationists encouraging the British Columbia government to restore fish habitat, rather than build more hatcheries.

By the mid-20th century, scientists were finding evidence that artificially propagated fish were struggling to survive in the wild. “There is something wrong with hatchery trout,” a US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist wrote in 1948, suggesting that the fish—close cousins to salmon—were becoming domesticated. Today, hatchery salmon are generally bigger, bolder, and more combative than wild salmon; when produced by the tens or hundreds of thousands, they can outcompete wild fish. Paradoxically, though, nearly all hatchery salmon die quickly from poor life skills—failure to avoid predators or to successfully find food—or succumb to stress in the strange new environment. One facility manager told me that his coho had consumed bits of wood after release, likely mistaking the fragments for commercial feed pellets. “Hatchery fish are animals that are dressed in the skin of the salmon, but they’re missing most of what makes a salmon a salmon,” says Jim Lichatowich, a retired fish biologist and author of Salmon Without Rivers. “They don’t have that 10,000-year study of one place.”

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