The problem with hatcheries and hopes for wild salmon

A school of red fish swim through very clear water, showing the sand beneath them.

Photo by Fernando Lessa.

Pacific salmon are foundationally important to Canada’s wildlife, food security, cultures, and economy. Yet, salmon catches have declined precipitously in the last two decades despite millions of dollars invested annually in hatcheries. This past May, Raincoast authors called on the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission, who oversee catches of salmon, to scrutinize the input of billions of young salmon released en masse every year from hatcheries around the Pacific rim.

Growing evidence indicates that billions of hungry fry are creating an environment where competition is steep and food is limited. It is Garrett Hardin’s classic tragedy of the commons, playing out in the North Pacific. This, along with the habitat loss, climate change, unsustainable fisheries, and other human impacts mean salmon, such as Chinook, are returning to spawn younger, smaller, and in fewer numbers. This is only one way that the release of hatchery fish causes problems for the recovery of wild salmon.

So if hatcheries that fertilize eggs in buckets and raise fish in tanks only make the problem for wild salmon worse, how do we recover salmon? In a nutshell, we need to invest in habitat protection, habitat restoration, and far better decision-making at all levels of government to prioritize the resilience of species and ecosystems. This gives wild salmon, and the myriad of other species that would benefit from habitat protection, the best chance at adapting to a changing climate and rebuilding their populations. Keep reading to learn how Raincoast is putting these ideas into practice in the Fraser River.

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