Wild steelhead have declined 97% in Puget Sound since 1895. Of the remaining populations, more than half are at high risk of extinction.
Habitat destruction, dams, harvest, and poorly conducted hatchery practices have all contributed to the decline of wild steelhead. Based on the theory that hatcheries could make up for habitat losses, overfishing, and dams, steelhead hatcheries became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Current wild abundance is likely only 1%–4% of what it was prior to the turn of the 20th century, and cannot be explained by loss of habitat alone. In addition, NOAA Fisheries Service recently assessed twenty Puget Sound wild steelhead populations and found that twelve have a “high” risk of extinction.
Contrary to popular belief, WDFW steelhead hatcheries are not helping to recover wild steelhead; instead, research shows hatcheries are harming wild steelhead and impeding their chances for recovery.
Hatchery releases of “Chambers Creek” winter steelhead were initiated by WDFW in the 1940s. By the early 1970s, this domesticated stock had become the dominant winter-run hatchery source for all western Washington river systems. To this day, many facilities continue to plant large numbers of Chambers Creek steelhead in rivers of Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula, and the Lower Columbia River basin. Nevertheless, a growing body of scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that steelhead hatchery programs
- impose harmful genetic effects on wild steelhead,
- adversely affect wild steelhead through ecological effects, and
- physically block fish passage and exert other “facility” related effects.
There are important and well-documented reproductive differences between hatchery steelhead and wild steelhead. Hatchery steelhead parents produce fewer than half as many successful offspring as wild steelhead parents.
The vast majority of hatchery steelhead are from “segregated” programs where the broodstock is genetically distinct from the wild steelhead of the system. These fish are mainly produced to subsidize harvest and are never intended to enhance steelhead recovery. Numerous scientific studies and science panel reviews have demonstrated that these fish reproduce poorly relative to wild fish. When Chambers Creek steelhead escape commercial and recreational fisheries to spawn in the wild, offspring of these fish demonstrate 1/10 to 1/2 the return rates of wild fish. With such poor reproductive potential, self-sustaining hatchery stocks cannot be attained.
When hatchery steelhead reproduce with wild steelhead, they degrade the health and abundance of wild populations.
Escaped hatchery steelhead that interbreed with wild steelhead produce offspring which demonstrate significantly reduced survival and reproductive success. For every 10 wild offspring returning to spawn, only 3 to 7 hybridized hatchery-wild offspring will return to spawn. As a result, interbreeding between hatchery and wild steelhead diminishes the reproductive potential of the entire population and enhances risks of extinction.
Public dollars spent on habitat and restoration are investments that will pay dividends into the future, but public dollars spent on hatcheries are investments that compromise the future.
Immediate benefits can be attained through the elimination or reduction of Chambers Creek steelhead programs. Millions of taxpayer dollars which currently fund hatchery practices and hinder wild steelhead recovery can be reprogrammed to purposes that boost recovery. By investing in habitat and improvements in fish passage, minimizing detrimental hatchery practices, and reducing fishery bycatch of wild spawners, we can increase returns of wild steelhead. In the face of a rapidly changing climate and increasing anthropogenic stressors, only immediate action can enable conservation of wild Puget Sound steelhead. Wild Fish Conservancy is working to reform steelhead hatcheries and remove these obstacles to wild steelhead recovery.
The time to save wild steelhead is now. Voice your support for a wild, sustainable, and fishable future. Learn the facts and hold your resource managers accountable.
Steelhead Hatchery Fact Poster
For more information, visit Steelhead Hatchery FAQ and Scientific Evidence on Adverse Effects of Steelhead Hatcheries.