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Salmon Hatchery Questions & Answers



In the late 1800s, elements of a hatchery system for Pacific salmon started to develop. Hatcheries are fish breeding and raising centers that have been built primarily to enhance harvest in commercial, sport, and Tribal fisheries, and reduce the impacts of development that destroys or degrades salmon habitat and blocks migratory routes. Hatcheries currently contribute between 70-80% of the fish in coastal salmon and steelhead fisheries in the Pacific Northwest.

Over the past several decades, wild salmon populations have declined dramatically, despite, and perhaps sometimes because of, the contribution of hatcheries. Many salmon stocks in Washington and Oregon are now listed as either threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. With this decline has come an increased focus on the preservation of indigenous wild salmon stocks. Hatcheries have the potential to assist in the conservation of wild stocks, but they also pose some risks. At this time, scientists still have many questions about the extent to which hatchery programs enhance or threaten the survival of wild populations. Additional research and investigation is needed.

This list of Q&As provides some general information about hatcheries and the interaction of hatchery fish with wild stocks.

Q: Why is salmon conservation important?

A: Salmon conservation is important for biological, economic, cultural, and religious reasons. Salmon play a major role in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. When salmon return to their natal streams to spawn and die, they bring large amounts of nutrients from the marine environment into rivers and streams, where they enrich both plant and animal life.

Salmon are a part of Native American spiritual and cultural identity. Salmon support religious ceremonies held by Pacific Northwest Indian Tribes and are a vital part of Tribal economies. Salmon also support the greater Pacific Northwest economy. In 1996, fish caught by Washington commercial fishers were worth an estimated $148 million. In addition, recreational anglers spent approximately $700 million on fishing related expenses, which translates into about $1.3 billion and over 15,000 jobs. Life in the Pacific Northwest would be very different without salmon.

Q: What are hatcheries?

A: Hatcheries are facilities where fish are bred and raised for at least part of their life cycle. Click here to learn about the salmon life cycle.

Q: Why are there hatcheries?

A: Hatcheries improve the survival of young salmon (eggs, fry, and juveniles). More young salmon survive in the hatchery than would survive in the wild because there are no predators in hatcheries, food is abundant, and the environment is relatively constant. Click here to learn about the potential benefits of this increase in survival.

Q: Why should we focus on conserving "wild" populations? Why not rely instead on hatcheries?

A: Wild salmon have existed for millions of years. The oldest salmon fossil dates back about 50 million years. Pacific salmon, as we know them today, emerged about 2 million years ago. Remaining natural salmon populations provide the best chance for long-term survival of salmon because they have had to evolve and respond to significant environmental changes over many thousands of years, and can be expected to do so in the future.

Salmon hatcheries can provide a number of benefits to society, but reliance on salmon hatcheries as a substitute for the conservation of wild populations is risky as a long-term conservation strategy. While wild salmon populations have existed for many thousands of years, most hatchery populations have only existed for several decades or less. We do not know if hatchery stocks have the same resilience as wild salmon populations. If hatchery stocks can't survive on their own in the wild, they will need a hatchery to sustain them forever. This can be problematic because: mechanical and technical difficulties occur periodically in hatcheries, such as disruption of power or water supplies or disease outbreaks; and hatcheries are expensive to operate, requiring a large and constant source of funds.

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