“Wild broodstock” steelhead drive angler harvest, spur controversy

Traditionally, coastal rivers in the state of Oregon were stocked with one strain of steelhead, the standard Alsea stock. The Alsea hatchery stock is an early returning fish known affectionately as the “Alsea ugly.” But each strain of steelhead is adapted to the river of its origins and the prevailing conditions in that watershed.  Alsea fish should probably stay in the Alsea.

For the better part of a decade, hatchery managers on the Nestucca as well as other rivers around the state of Oregon have been developing “wild broodstock” hatchery fish. By continually using wild fish to develop the hatchery stock the agencies hope to build a better hatchery fish that impacts wild stocks less.

A recent study on the Nestucca River suggests that the hatchery offspring of “wild Nestucca broodstock” fish are harvested at a rate of two to three times higher than the offspring of the traditional early returning Alsea stock. A higher percentage of smolts seem to survive to return as adults and the run appears to more closely mimic natural run timing, spread out over the course of the season.

On the Alsea River, the hatchery release is split evenly between the traditional Alsea hatchery stock and the “Alsea Wild” stock. Sixty thousand smolts from each of the two lineages are released in the Alsea River annually. I am not aware of any studies confirming the higher catch rate for the “wild stock” on the Alsea but my limited experience this winter bears this out. I went one for three and the fish I landed was from the “Alsea Wild” stock:

Alsea hatchery steelhead

(Note the adipose finclip and the maxillary clip meaning this fish is descended from the Alsea “wild stock”.)

I have also spoken with a source who fishes the Alsea frequently and he says that almost every fish he has caught this year has been from the “wild stock.”

Using wild broodstock is seen by some as an improvement in hatchery management practices. Where previously out-of-basin fish were stocked in far flung watersheds, hatchery managers have been developing hatchery fish using locally adapted wild fish. The idea is that the in-basin brood is adapted to local watershed conditions and the use of in-basin fish will minimize dilution of the genetic integrity of naturally produced fish in the basin. The practice is not without controversy. Many credible native fish activists have decried the programs pointing to studies that show that “wild broodstock” fish are still hatchery fish and are substantially less fit than their native counterparts.

My position is in the middle. I truly want thriving runs of native fish in our watersheds and there is no question that hatchery fish, no matter their lineage compete with natives for resources. At the same time, I am at peace with the fact that some fish must die otherwise I couldn’t fish, catch and release or otherwise. Whether mortality is caused by my fishing or competition seems almost irrelevant.

I too have seen the studies regarding loss of fitness—but I also wonder how fast the offspring of wild fish and “wild broodstock fish” regain fitness. I’d wager pretty quickly. I’d like to see it studied. Also, wild broodstock fish return and are harvested at a higher rate meaning less fish can be planted resulting in less competition between smolts for the same amount of angler harvest.

The rivers that are not stocked at all are almost devoid of anglers. I like this. I like fishing these streams. Most people don’t and the fact is that most habitat enhancement money comes from license sales. Without at least a limited harvest opportunity, I believe wild fish would suffer in the end.

As usual, there is no easy answer.-Karl

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