Wild-Broodstock programs offer no benefits to wild steelhead

Wild-broodstock hatchery programs were sold to Oregonians as a way to provide harvestable steelhead while also protecting wild populations from the harmful effects of domestication and out-of-basin introductions. In reality, there were no benefits for wild steelhead or salmon. But for fishery managers, wild-brood was a savior. Steelhead hatchery programs had seen major declines in their rates of return as hatchery broodstock became more domesticated, and the high cost of each returning adult slid into the ridiculous. Some programs, like those provided by the Sandy Hatchery and the Trask Hatchery repeatedly found themselves on the chopping block, only to be saved at the 11th hour by sympathetic legislators.

Steelhead hatchery

The real benefits of wild-broodstock had nothing to do with conservation, and everything to do with business and the status quo. Using wild steelhead as the source of eggs and milt promised an immediate and substantial spike in the rate of return. Whereas domesticated stocks routinely saw rates at or below 1%, wild-brood raised the rate to 5%, 10% or more. Fishery managers got religion, and fast. They realized they could resurrect their failing programs, provide a much better product, and take credit as conservationists in the process. All they had to do was apply for a few permits and come up with a program for collecting wild fish for spawning.

After a handful of promising pilot projects, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) took the show on the road. It rolled out wild-broodstock programs state-wide, and in another brilliant business move, contracted with local angling groups to help collect broodstock and feed the offspring. Soon coastal communities were buzzing with happy anglers, guides and merchants who were deeply vested in their local hatchery programs. And everyone took notice of the result: the new hatchery steelhead were as big, strong, and beautiful as natives, but they were “keepers.” Never mind the fact that valuable wild fish were being taken out of natural production, or the fact that ODFW often had no idea what proportion of the wild run was being taken for the new programs.

Before, during and after ODFW made the state-wide transition to wild-brood, one of the agency’s most respected researchers, Dr. Katherine Kostow, published studies that signaled trouble with the new programs. Kostow found, among other things, that the progeny of wild steelhead hatched and raised in the Hood River Hatchery, showed clear signs of domestication. In other words, no matter how “pure” the parents were, steelhead reared in a hatchery would quickly slide toward the same behaviors as the old domesticated stocks, losing diversity, and likely passing those deficiencies on to their offspring. The conservation community realized that the potential risk of genetic decay might actually be greater from wild-brood than from domesticated stocks, since wild-brood offspring had a better chance of spawning successfully.

ODFW had already pushed the snowball off the mountain, and nobody was about to risk his or her career by jumping in front of it. So in spite of warnings, in spite of good science that indicated the potential for greater risk to wild fish, ODFW stood its ground and stayed the course.

On January 4th, 2011, at an ODFW town hall meeting in Salem, concerned citizens questioned agency leadership as to the conservation benefits of wild-broodstock programs. Ed Bowles, Oregon’s chief of fisheries, and an outspoken advocate for wild fish management, announced that “as far as which type of program is best for wild steelhead, domesticated versus wild-broodstock, the jury is still out.”

This week, with the public release of a comprehensive new study on salmon and steelhead hatchery programs throughout the Pacific Northwest*, we have strong, defensible evidence that wild-broodstock hatchery programs do not protect wild fish from the negative effects of hatchery programs. The harmful effects of wild broodstock, particularly the genetic effects, are far from being understood. Yet the burden of proof is still being placed squarely on the shoulders of the conservation community. Advocates for wild salmon and steelhead are effectively held responsible for proving that these programs cause harm, while those who are all too eager to risk it all, in the name of the almighty dollar, go about their business.

Oregon is in the grip of addiction to its hatchery programs, and we’re still a long way from a full-scale intervention. But the tide is shifting, and support for wild fish is growing daily. This new study moves us one big step closer to a future where wild fish receive the respect and protection they deserve. Heartfelt thanks to Chilcote, Goodson and Falcy for their spectacular efforts. The beers are on me next time you gents roll through Eugene!

*Read the new study here.

See what wild-broodstock programs are doing now to wild steelhead on the Sandy River.

Join the cause here.

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11 Responses to Wild-Broodstock programs offer no benefits to wild steelhead

  1. Andy says:

    While I sympathize with your cause be careful using this paper as a dogmatic affirmation. This is computer modeling based on best available information which after reading the paper is based on many assumptions. The fact that all the different populations and species have the same reduction in spawning success should set off a warning in your head. Nothing in nature is cut and dry. It makes sense and most likely is true to some degree but there are numerous holes in this paper that can easily be attacked. Genetics are complicated and not as predictable as you might think.

  2. Sam says:

    The die was cast long ago. The successes of agriculture and the promises of the industrial age were wedded to the myths surrounding artificial propagation of salmon around the mid- to late 1800s and was all the “evidence” needed to launch the birth of modern salmon culture. The fish hatchery took on the image of a food factory, with salmon as products rather than living beings. The primary business of fish hatcheries has always been harvest. The optimism surrounding the promise of salmon hatcheries has been endurable and nearly unshakable – at least until recently. The myths of salmon hatcheries are so embedded in the psyche of Pacific Northwest that it is doubtful they can ever be uprooted or transformed. We are all addicted to hatchery fish to some extent. What will it take to change our personal myths about salmon?

  3. Jim says:

    True, this paper is not proof of anything. No scientific paper is. The problem is that Wild Broodstock programs are being promoted as the gospel, but there is no long term research showing they are safe to wild stocks. Meanwhile they are being used extensively on some of our most productive rivers and best habitat.
    We need to shift some of the burden of proof on to hatchery proponents. How about Wild Broodstock programs are limited to a few pilot programs until their long term effects can be studied and solid evidence shows they are safe? In the meantime let’s keep them away from streams like the Nestucca and Sandy that could be supporting terrific runs of wild fish!

  4. the burden of proof is being placed on the fish, not just conservationists.

  5. Snoopy Rodder says:

    Hatchery Fish, any species, has turned out to be the most addictive narcotic that man has created.


  6. Bob Burns says:

    In their haste to provide as many Oregonians as possible with an “angling experience” the ODFW creates dumbed down fish that are incapable of living on their own. It’s like propagating zombie fish which wind up in a fry pan.

    When I caught my first wild steelhead, I was in absolute awe of this noble animal. I was happy to release him back to river. It’s positively heartbreaking to think that these greatest of all salmonid fishes won’t be around for my grandkids.

  7. Chris says:

    The first hatchery will be placed in a location where it stands the highest potential for production, with the least risk of wreaking havoc on wild fish. After that hatchery shows success it opens the flood gates for hatcheries all over, but as the practice continues each new hatchery will be placed in a less productive location, or placed over the top of a healthy wild run, until they begin doing more bad than good. I think that is the situation we have here in Oregon currently.

  8. Rob R says:

    Andy, thanks for your comment. I do consider this study to be a strong affirmation, despite the statistical stew it represents. Most importantly, though, and the real reason for my post, is what I see as the “story” behind Oregon’s move to wild brood. It was business, not biology. And it still is.

  9. Andy says:

    Rob you are absolutely right it always has been about selling tags and keeping people happy ever since that first hatchery on the Clackamas. Initially it was for the commercial fisherman/canners who saw the decline in fish numbers and later for everyone else. It always pays to be skeptical and analytical of everything we read so that we don’t go to far out on a limb defending our views. Thanks for posting this it was a very interesting read.

  10. Rob P says:

    I know this post is from a year ago but I just found it after looking for more info online regarding the disgusting practice of “Wild Broodstock” programs. Recently someone from the coast posted about a guide catching a 25+ pound Wild Steelhead and keeping it for the program. I can’t tell you how disturbing this is, why the hell is a guide allowed to take one of the greatest examples of a wild steelhead and wipe it completely off the map? I should have done this years ago but I’m going to be joining the Native Fish Society today. Thank you once again Rob for your excellent writing and help in trying to protect our Native fish.

  11. jOHN says:

    “Genetics are complicated and not as predictable as you might think.” I concur wholeheartedly Andy.Just show us the genetic studies that show that WE are improving their adaptability and reproductive success.

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