Salmon Fisher’s Journal Field Observations: Stray hatchery fish

Salmon “home” right? They find their way back home to the river, tributary and maybe even the gravel bar where they were spawned. In the case of hatchery fish, they home to their release location, right?

Jay Nicholas Strays 1

Well, yes and no. Homing by Pacific Salmon is crucial to the ability of these fish to develop genetic characteristics that have survival benefits, characteristics that improve their fitness, productivity, and ability to survive in different river basins. This is true.

It is also true, I think, that a certain amount of straying is essential to the survival of Pacific Salmon. If these fish did not – ever – stray from their home stream, there wouldn’t be anadromous fish in rivers that have been frozen under ice sheets, cooked by volcanoes, baked in drought, blocked by fire and landslides, and so on.

Pacific salmon are pioneers. But there is a balancing act between the benefits (to a locally adapted stock) of returning to a home stream versus the benefits (to the species) of venturing forth to some other river to spawn. This is not a conscious choice, I remind my friends who tend to anthropomorphize salmon and intuit their desires.

Some stocks of Pacific salmon do home very precisely to very local spawning areas. Sockeye salmon of an inlet race would survive very poorly if they spawned in an outlet river. I believe that some pink salmon stocks home to very spatially distinct reaches where they spawn near springs and braided channels. Cutthroat trout in Alaska, I understand, also home very precisely.

But we know that there is indeed a degree of straying in our lower 48 Pacific salmon stocks. Not enough that they all blend into one mass of indistinguishable genetic goo – but enough that it is a matter of interest and curiosity.

It is easier to track coded-wire-tagged hatchery fish than wild fish. Rogue Chinook wind up in the Klamath. Klamath coho wind up in the Rogue. Rogue half-pounders show up in The Elk. Chetco steelhead return to Elk River Hatchery. When they were in operation, private hatchery coho and Chinook roamed into many of the nearby watersheds instead of all returning to their home hatchery. I remember a year when several-thousand hatchery coho returned to Elk River instead of the Floras-New River system where they were stocked as smolts.

Jay Nicholas Strays 2

Keep your eyes open when you fish rivers where hatchery fish are not stocked. Make mental note when you catch a hatchery fish there. The Chinook pictured above is a hatchery buck that was not in its home river.

Pacific salmon and their home rivers are full of grace and wonder. I encourage you to observe the fish and think about how these ecosystems once functioned. Think about how hatchery and wild fish interact and how hatchery and wild fish factor into our fishing experience. Share your observations. Learn.

Jay Nicholas

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4 Responses to Salmon Fisher’s Journal Field Observations: Stray hatchery fish

  1. Rob R says:

    Is it just me, or are hatchery chinook more fit, on average, than hatchery steelhead?

    The fish aren’t the problem, it’s the arrogance and greed of those who cry for more, more, more, that get’s me down.

  2. phil G says:

    Seems to me that the main goal of Depts of Fish&Wildlife in most states , through their hatchery operations, is to appease the whining public more than actually do what’s best for the rivers and the fish in them. I don’t see this as beneficial in the long run.

  3. Sam says:

    What is your take on the continuing impact of hatchery strays on the ever diminishing genetic pools of migratory salmonids? Are there any native stocks left?

  4. jay nicholas says:

    Sam: great questions. I need to do another post to answer decently. for now, do not panic, there are still reservoirs of adaptive genetic diversity in wild native pacific salmon populations in the lower 48, Oregon Included. And yes, there are indeed still” native” salmon, steelhead, and trout stocks scattered across the landscape. As an example close to home, the McKenzie still supports genetically distinguishable (unique if you generalize) resident rainbow, even though domesticated hatchery trout have been stocked there for many decades. Curious, but explainable. And such observations offer hope for the future of wild salmonids in our home waters. More to come in a future post.


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