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The Only Tool in the Toolbox: Genetic Diversity and the Climate Change Challenge

While the fundamental importance of genetic and life-history diversity is widely understood, management agencies continuously undermine the diversity of wild salmon and trout genetics through the practice of hatchery production.

Leavenworth hatcheryGenetic diversity is the tool which enables the persistence of all populations and species on our planet; without it, adaptation and evolution to changing environmental conditions would not be possible. In our dynamic world, selection pressures are constantly morphing. Landslides force rivers to change course; windstorms topple forests altering shade and local temperature regimes; patterns of high and low pressure moderate ocean productivity and associated ecological interactions. As new challenges arise from the surrounding environment, genetic variation ensures that some individuals within a population possess the required traits which facilitate survival against the odds. These survivors have the potential to reproduce and provide a future for entire populations which will inherit the beneficial trait enabling persistence in the altered environmental state.

With the commencement of the industrial revolution, mankind ignorantly manufactured one the greatest mass-extinction events experienced in the history of life. Because of rapidly changing temperature and flow regimes, and increasing acidity of ocean environments, populations have been forced to adapt at rates that may ultimately exceed their capacities to survive. In the face of climate change, genetic diversity holds the only opportunity for the persistence of populations, species, and ecosystems.

While the fundamental importance of genetic and life-history diversity is widely understood, management agencies continuously undermine the diversity of wild salmon and trout genetics through the practice of hatchery production. For decades, scientists have understood how domestication selection within hatchery processes produces salmonids with inferior and homogenous genetics; these fish exhibit severely diminished rates of survival and reproductive success. Nevertheless, managers continue to propagate state waters with non-native, domesticated fishes which frequently escape fisheries to hybridize and compete with threatened and endangered salmonids. As the genetic viability of ESA-listed populations is weakened through interactions between hatchery and wild fishes, the ability of our region’s cultural icon to adapt and withstand the accelerating effects of climate change is forever compromised.

Understanding the drastic implications of climate change and the associated adaptation requirements, Wild Fish Conservancy has taken a lead role in pressuring resource managers to protect the remaining genetic diversity of the Pacific Northwest’s salmon and trout populations. Forced by the failure of managers to incorporate the reforms required to prevent the extinction of the resources they have sworn to protect, WFC has undertaken legal action against detrimental hatchery practices in Icicle Creek, the Elwha River, and across Puget Sound. Additionally, the organization has launched a campaign to promote the collaborative use of sound science amongst stakeholder organizations, resource management agencies, scientists, and NGOs alike. Uniting all concerned parties behind the principles of biological and ecological sciences will compel management to address the scientific and community consensus concerning the detrimental effects of hatchery production on the genetic diversity, survival, and reproductive capacity of wild salmonids.

Similar to case of climate change, there is no scientific debate concerning the effects of hatchery production on wild salmonid survival and reproductive success. After decades of research, we have acquired the knowledge to make the appropriate management decisions. Only one question remains: are future generations entitled to the resources we have available to us today? If so, there is only a small window of opportunity to apply our knowledge to prevent the loss of genetic diversity and the extirpation of threatened and endangered salmonids in the face of climate change. Now is the time for sacrifice and action. Show your support for Wild Fish Conservancy in order to change the status-quo and provide for the future.  

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