Steelhead Hatchery FAQ
Frequently asked questions regarding steelhead hatcheries and their effect on wild steelhead.
- Aren’t steelhead hatcheries assisting steelhead recovery?
- When I go to the website of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, it says that “WDFW has joined with tribal, federal and private scientists to examine hatchery operations and determine what structural and operational changes are necessary.” Isn’t that a good thing?
- The federal Endangered Species Act protects Puget Sound steelhead. If steelhead hatcheries were a problem, why hasn’t the federal government stepped in?
- What’s the evidence that hatchery steelhead hurt wild fish?
- What ecological problems do hatchery steelhead cause?
- What is a “Chambers Creek” hatchery steelhead?
- What will we catch if there are no hatchery fish?
- Does this mean that fishing for steelhead is a thing of the past?
The overwhelming majority of hatchery steelhead come from “segregated” steelhead hatchery programs (those where the hatchery broodstock is genetically distinct from the wild steelhead of the system). For the most part, the fish are produced to subsidize harvest and the fish are caught in the recreational fisheries. Fisheries managers and scientists acknowledge that these highly domesticated hatchery steelhead harm wild steelhead through both genetic and ecological interactions.
There are a few “conservation hatcheries” or “integrated” programs that use local wild fish as their broodstock (see the brief discussion on the Elwha River page). The fish returning as adults are not as productive as the naturally reproducing wild steelhead. These programs also require continual “mining” of the local population for broodstock. For the most part, these programs have been unsuccessful, and a 2013 WDFW assessment recommends they be discontinued in the Lower Columbia.
2. When I go to the website of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, it says that “WDFW has joined with tribal, federal and private scientists to examine hatchery operations and determine what structural and operational changes are necessary.” Isn’t that a good thing?
The Congressionally funded hatchery review process started in 2000 and changes to the system have been slow in coming. WDFW continues to utilize many harmful hatchery practices. As scientific evidence piles up indicating the adverse effects of hatchery steelhead, WDFW’s website refuses to acknowledge it.
3. The federal Endangered Species Act protects Puget Sound steelhead. If steelhead hatcheries were a problem, why hasn’t the federal government stepped in?
Federal scientists have in fact become more and more concerned as the scientific evidence mounts. In 2010, a number of federal scientists stated “[i]n our opinion as Northwest Fisheries Science Center scientists, Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead have no role in the recovery of native Puget Sound steelhead.” In spite of this and other warnings, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife continues to operate their hatcheries without the proper authorization from the NOAA Fisheries Service.
The vast majority of hatchery steelhead are from the “segregated” programs. These fish reproduce poorly compared to wild fish. Numerous scientific studies and science panel reviews have shown that hatchery fish that spawn in the wild produce very few returning adults—1/10 to 1/2 compared to the numbers produced by wild fish. Hatchery steelhead that interbreed with wild fish produce somewhat more, but they are still much less productive than wild fish mating with other wild fish.
Besides the competition between returning hatchery steelhead adults and wild steelhead for spawning habitat and mates, juvenile hatchery fish also cause problems. Hatchery managers know that hatcheries do not achieve return rates of adult steelhead like natural watersheds do, so they flood the rivers with hatchery fish. The juvenile hatchery steelhead are larger and can prey on wild steelhead; they compete with wild juvenile steelhead for food and rearing habitat. Furthermore, the large numbers of hatchery fish released attract predators that feed on juvenile salmonids and diminish wild steelhead survival.
The Chambers Creek winter-run steelhead stock originated in the 1920s from native adult fish trapped in Chambers Creek (a south Puget Sound tributary). In 1945, a new steelhead rearing program was initiated leading to marked changes in this stock. Hatcheries outside the Chambers Creek watershed — including the Green River, Puyallup River, and Tokul Creek (Snoqualmie River basin) — began to utilize the Chambers Creek stock. After numerous generations of captive breeding, the Chambers Creek hatchery fish became well adapted to an artificial rearing environment, but less adapted to natural streams and rivers. This in part led to a reduction in survival of hatchery releases and diminished returns. Nevertheless, improvements in hatchery feed in the late 1960s enabled managers to raise Chambers Creek hatchery smolts to one year of age (in contrast to the majority of wild steelhead smolts in Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula that are 2 or 3 years old); this made it financially feasible to greatly expand the Chambers Creek hatchery program to a region-wide level. Since the early 1970s, the Chambers Creek stock has been the predominant hatchery winter steelhead stock planted by WDFW in Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula, and Columbia River basins. For decades, it has been widely acknowledged that use of the Chambers Creek hatchery stock is detrimental to salmon and steelhead recovery.
Our watersheds will produce substantial numbers of steelhead when we let them. Before the development of the current hatchery system in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many wild steelhead were available for harvest. For example, prior to large plants of hatchery steelhead in the 1960s, wild steelhead runs within the Skagit River watershed exceeded 20,000 annually (despite substantial sport harvest). In 2013, fewer than 20,000 wild steelhead returned to all of Puget Sound.
Healthy wild steelhead populations can support reasonable levels of harvest and catch-and-release angling if they are carefully managed. But first they need to be rebuilt, and hatchery fish are preventing this. So, in the short term, harvest opportunity will, of necessity, be limited. It is up to us to make this sacrifice as an investment in our children’s and grandchildren’s future.