Why Wild Broodstock

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Why Wild Broodstock

It’s imperative to treat hatchery fish as much like wild fish as possible so that they can provide consistent robust fisheries.

All Along We Knew

We need to stop blaming hatcheries for our failure to produce robust fisheries and instead blame hatchery practices. by Jack Smith

In early 2022 winter steelhead season was already off to a great start on all northern Oregon rivers west of the Cascades and especially good on those rivers that have hatchery programs that utilize wild fish for broodstock. This fact, a preponderance of current science and even a little common sense, make it difficult to understand how or why misinformation about these programs continues to persist.

Early on society decided they could destroy salmon and steelhead habitat and mitigate for that destruction with hatcheries. For awhile once a few wrinkles were ironed out it worked that way. Most rivers had abundant runs of hatchery and wild fish coexisting. Fishing was excellent for many decades. For those of us who were alive and fished then, these were the good old days. This was before fin clipping so a fish was a fish; times were good and fish were plentiful.

As time went on and we failed to improve hatcheries or hatchery practices, or even maintain the hatchery infrastructure, runs began to fail. This resulted in declining numbers of less-fit fish. Generation after generation of inbred, out-of-basin fish being used as broodstock was taking its toll.

Next we were told that hatchery production was the reason wild fish numbers were declining and if we reduced or even eliminated hatchery production while repairing damaged habitat wild fish would “recover.” I would note here that the often-used term “recover” means very little unless recovery is defined. If you are going to achieve a goal you need to know what it is.

A hatchery broodstock steelhead from the Nestucca River in Oregon.

A hatchery broodstock steelhead from the Nestucca River in Oregon.

If it is true, and I believe it is, that wild fish are unbelievably magnificent creatures perfectly adapted to their natural environment then why, when given the choice, did we choose to make hatchery fish as unlike wild fish as possible and select for traits in our hatcheries that nature selects against? Why would we continue to utilize broodstock that returned to the hatchery for literally decades and then be surprised when they became weaker and weaker as they became more and more inbred over many generations? When it was realized that stocks were failing from being inbred, why did some blame hatcheries and not hatchery practices? Given all of this, why did we continue to do the same things and expect a different result instead of changing practices and making hatcheries better? Why, when these practices were obviously failing, was it decided that eliminating or reducing hatchery stocking was the answer? Or was that the goal all along.

Some of this can be attributed to the common human trait of letting perfect get in the way of achieving good, even when perfect is not attainable.

A great example of this is the often repeated statement that “the best hatchery on the planet is a natural wild river.” This is absolutely true, however it has to be a healthy river with an intact ecosystem from the headwaters to the ocean. I once read, “We are 200 years and 4 million people late.” This speaks to our current predicament if we are going to accomplish that. Hatcheries currently operate for a variety of reasons and are meant to mitigate for the damage our human footprint has had on salmon habitat. Very few, if any, natural wild rivers occur in the Pacific Northwest.   

There is a portion of that human foot print that has been permanently lost and will never be recovered, especially with the population growth the Pacific Northwest is expecting in the next few decades. Habitat should be recovered to the greatest degree possible, however hatcheries will always need to be a part of our future. That said, we need to make sure they are efficient and help provide abundance while doing as little harm to wild fish as possible.

If a person was to believe it is possible to restore habitat to its pre-statehood condition, which is what it would take for wild fish to achieve historical abundance or “recovery,” then we would have to accomplish things that society will never allow. All coastal communities would have to be removed from the estuary habitat they were built on. For example, Oregon’s Bull Run Reservoir would have to be drained and the dam removed; the dike that Marine Drive on the lower Columbia is built on would have to be removed and the acres of former estuary habitat it currently blocks restored. Moreover, coastal rivers would have to have rip rap removed to allow rivers to naturally wander and create braided channels that fish need for rearing. The Portland seawall would have to be removed, the dikes would need to be removed from Sauvie Island and the population would have to stop expanding if not be reduced. In addition to actually defining what recovery means these and many more habitat improvements would need to be accomplished if abundance or an undefined recovery is to be achieved. We can and should fight for fish and the habitat they need but should do so with a realistic understanding of what is achievable, not what we wish was. 

I recently heard a person say, “Wild broodstock programs have been tried in various places and some would say there are various problems with them.” So to paraphrase, there are some unidentified problems with wild broodstock programs. No wonder wild broodstock programs and hatcheries in general are surrounded by confusion.

One cause of this confusion is the term wild broodstock has never been officially defined. This causes programs to be called wild broodstock programs without meeting any standard. Much research has suffered from this lack of definition making comparing programs or results difficult at best.

As an example, in a study published in the “Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences” (M.W. Chilcote et al, 2011) researchers concluded, “Further, the impact of hatchery fish from ‘wild type’ hatchery brood stocks was no less adverse than hatchery fish from traditional, domesticated stocks.”

Here is how the researchers defined hatchery programs: “We defined ST (segregated) hatchery programs as those where local wild fish supplied less than 10% of each year’s hatchery broodstock and IT (integrated) hatchery programs, as those where local wild fish compromised from 10% to 100% of each year’s broodstock.”

“First, our finding may be a reflection that the IT (integrated) hatchery fish in our evaluation were produced by hatchery programs that in many cases did not include enough wild fish in the broodstock to appreciably slow rapidly progressing domestication process. However, 9 out of 26 populations we classified as containing IT (integrated) hatchery fish were from situations where 50% to 100% of each year’s hatchery broodstock were wild fish. Therefore, in light of this fact, and the reality that in many of the ST (segregated) hatchery stocks the history of domestication is long and intensive, we conclude that if there were substantive benefits to using IT (integrated) hatchery fish over ST (segregated) in terms of natural reproductive performance, we would have detected the signal in our study.”

To break that down, nine out of 26 populations contained 50% to 100% wild fish in the broodstock which means 15 populations contained only 10% to 40% wild fish in the broodstock which only proves if you lower the standard for what is considered a wild broodstock program low enough it is of little or no benefit.

When the congressionally charged Hatchery Scientific Review Group (HSRG) spoke on Chilcote et al (2011) they noted that, “Different definitions of integrated hatchery programs have been used by others, leading to different conclusions, not because of differences in the underlying biological assumptions, but because of differences in the definition of an integrated program. Chilcote et al. (2011), for example, used a more liberal definition of integration and arrived at the conclusion that integrated programs were less effective. Those conclusions are not applicable to integrated programs as defined by the HSRG.”

In a perfect wild broodstock program every hatchery fish would have two wild parents. Absent that, then the percentage of wild fish in the brood should be 50% or larger to ensure that there are more wild genes being infused into the hatchery population than hatchery genes being infused into the wild if or when hatchery fish spawn in the wild. The larger the percent of wild fish used in the broodstock the higher the number of hatchery fish can acceptably appear on the spawning grounds and the smaller effect they would have.

I have also heard it said that certainly the use of local stocks is better than an imported stock if the goal is to minimize damage. But, the accumulated evidence is that any time a hatchery produces steelhead they are not as successful spawning in the wild.

Spawning success in the wild is always measured as relative reproductive success (RRS) at the individual level which is a problem for at least a couple of reasons.

First of all when comparing RRS of wild and hatchery fish the difference needs to be quantified at the population level and there are too many variables for anyone to accurately do that. 

If wild fish exhibit an RRS that is greater than hatchery fish, but there are enough hatchery fish to overcome that difference at the population level, the result is a net gain to the population. Additionally, peer reviewed science tells us that while males exhibit less individual reproductive fitness than their wild counterparts the fitness exhibited by females is equal to that of wild fish. Think about that for awhile. Males who have to fight other males for available females show less individual reproductive success than their wild counterparts but hatchery females which are likely being fought over show individual reproductive success comparable if not equal to wilds.

Instead of managing hatchery fish to keep them off the spawning beds, we should be utilizing wild broodstock to the greatest degree possible so that hatchery fish are as much like wild fish as possible doing as little harm as possible for wild fish when they do spawn in the wild. This is called Proportional Natural Influence (PNI) and is detailed here: http://www.stateofthesalmon.org/conference2009/downloads/Busack_Craig.pdf.

As an example, a hatchery program that utilizes 100% wild fish for brood could acceptably have as many as 50% of spawning fish be of hatchery origin although to be cautious 30% is recommended. In Oregon, Native Fish Conservation Policy only allows for 10% and often hatchery programs are kept much smaller than that. As an example, the stray rate on Oregon’s Nestucca River 2.5 to 3%. 

We need to quit managing hatchery fish like they were a plague and instead make hatchery fish as much like wild fish as possible so that they can provide consistent robust fisheries like they did in the good old days.

Finally, we need to quit letting the quest for perfect get in the way of good management. Perfect has “left the building” and his relative, as good as possible, is here to stay.  ssj

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