Hatch-22: The Problem with the Pacific Salmon Resurgence

More salmon but more of them are of hatchery origin

The proportion of hatchery versus wild Pacific salmon has risen to 1 in 5 with an overall production of 5 billion smolts produced annually, up from just 500 million in 1970. There are problems which stem from this. For imperiled salmon, the competition and genetic implications from these hatchery fish can be profound and effect the survivability of the runs which face the highest risk.

Hatch-22: The Problem with the Pacific Salmon Resurgence.
By Bruce Barcott – AlterNet






  1. WM Avatar

    Most of the increase in salmon populations is pink (aka humpy) and chum, to the detriment of other species. Neither of these is as good to eat as Chinook (aka king), sockeye (aka red), silver (aka coho). Gotta wonder. Of the five Pacific species the Japanese and Russians are producing more chum and pink because of a quicker turnarout lifecycle, and they are all going after the same feed.

    I also have to wonder what is happening to native steelhead as more of these less desireable salmon species are increasing in numbers. For the most part, they eat alot of the same stuff in the ocean, and compete in streams where they spawn, as well. The state of WA has reduced wild steelhead take to one per fisherman per year.

    Complex issues, and alot of money being thrown at the problem. I fish for steelhead quite a bit in winter, but will think twice about taking my one wild native.

    1. WM Avatar

      Chum is also called dog salmon, or keta for marketing purposes, but is still not a particularly good fish to eat, at least for the American palate.

    2. JB Avatar

      “Complex issues, and alot of money being thrown at the problem. I fish for steelhead quite a bit in winter, but will think twice about taking my one wild native.”

      You should come to Ohio. We have an amazing steelhead fishery, courtesy of a lot of stocking by the ODW. A recent study found we have one of the better catch-per-unit-of-effort ratios anywhere in the US. And what will really surprise you is the beauty of some of the small, wooded streams where these fish are spawning.


      1. Ken Cole Avatar

        Yeah, but your native salmonids are all but gone. They have been displaced by non-native salmon and steelhead.

      2. JB Avatar


        There are still a few places that would surprise you; but generally speaking, you’re right. Of course, the reduction of agriculture and reforestation that is occurring in eastern Ohio may actually improve waters and allow for the recovery of some native fish. Water quality is a big issue here.

      3. WM Avatar


        Thanks I will keep those OH steelhead in mind. Always up for a new experience, time permitting.

        Still nothing like taking on a muscular, chrome bright (just out of saltwater only a few hours), native winter steelhead weighing 20 pounds in fast water with light gear. I should also mention the part about wading butt deep in very cold (and sometimes murky, with hidden deep spots) water, and a cold drizzle or wet snow working its way down the back of your neck, and up your raincoat sleeves, with fingers that are nearly numb. There is no fishing like it.


        Ken or SEAK,

        Since you are fish guys what is your take on this the accuracy of this article and where this is all going on an international level. Any way to get these foreign countries to hold back a bit (and us too) on hatchery stocks to build up native runs.

        I fear, for example, the Elwha River (Olympic Nat. Park) will have its problems in attempts to restore whatever close to native salmon and steelhead are intended after the dam comes out at Lake Mills – especially when they have to compete with these chums and pinks in the open ocean.

      4. PointsWest Avatar

        I’ve always wanted to fly fish the River Wye in Debyshire, UK. It is believed that it was on the River Wye that modern fly fishing developed as a sport in the 15th century.


        Notice the cost to fish the River Wye (with guide)…about 175 pounds or $300 per day.

        All areas of America should preserve and restore trout/salmon streams where possible.

      5. WM Avatar


        Strange you should mention we should be protecting these streams. Olympic NP has road access from all four sides. The roads typically follow the drainages often just a few feet from the 100 year flood elevation (civil engineers will tell you this is the cheapest place to build them). Some of these are among the most productive salmon/steelhead rivers in the Northwest. They also are prone to significant flood events.

        I have long been a critic of these paved and gravel access roads, because I think they are a huge risk to fisheries. Crap from the roads and parking lots drain off, and as rivers change course over time they work over the road banks with lots of erosion. Then the Park Service contractors get in the rivers to put in rip rap, straighten out river channels in order to straighten the roads, or otherwise move dirt around to stabilize the road bed, only to have this cycle repeat itself over and over again in flood events. All the damn Park Service wants to is “improve” the roads so more people can access the interior. Just one more reason I can’t stand the Park Service that so many here (especially the urbanites) think walk at the right hand of God (or whatever diety they believe guides us all).

        And then some of these same folks will make an argument that wolves will keep elk out of riparian zones allowing for revegetation that will ameliorate these flood events (Ripple, et al, who have done work in ONP, for example). I say bullshit. It’s, the roads – where they are and how they are repaired- that cause the real problems.

  2. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    WM –

    From my perspective in this region (Southeast Alaska), it is not about pink salmon replacing more valuable species. Unlike some areas, particularly Prince William Sound, our pink salmon runs are practically 100% wild, produced from over 3,000 primary anadromous streams (not including tributaries). While there is a belt of limestone karst running up through some of the islands, most of our streams are pretty much rainwater (lots of it!) running off granite. Pink salmon, because of their overwhelming biomass, provide a huge nutrient subsidy and are a critical component of what makes the streams so productive for the more desirable species that happen to rear in freshwater for an extended period.

    Besides wild pink salmon, we are also the leading region on the Pacific Rim in wild coho salmon, a “desirable” species or “money fish” as the seiners call them, that thrives in small streams and rears for 1 or 2 years in freshwater. There have been some fairly striking experimental findings showing the importance of pink salmon to coho salmon. I’m just in the process of updating 23 years of coho spawner-recruit data and the escapement goal for a small highly productive system on the outer coast and am finding that pink salmon escapement is a far more powerful influence on coho salmon production that coho escapement — about doubling the coho run going from low pink salmon escapement to 1 per square meter (figured over all habitat, not just pink spawning area). There is a definite saturation point above about that density with no apparent further benefit. The experimental stream study conducted near Juneau showed a similar huge jump in coho fry growth between 0 and 1 pink carcass per square meter, tapering off above that level. Juvenile cohos eat pink salmon eggs, decomposing carcasses, the bugs attracted to the carcasses, the maggots that drop in the stream from carcasses hauled up on the banks, logs and root wads (by bears that often eat only the eggs & brains) and the pink fry that emerge the following spring about a month before the coho smolts leave. Then, the decomposed carcasses help fuel the whole food chain for the following year, promoting aquatic insect production for coho fry that emerge the following spring as well as feed-back loops from the terrestrial environment.

    By the way, I have heard but not seen published that there has been observed a substantial positive effect from the odd year only pink run on coho smolt production in your area, the Skagit River.

    Although they have been less-studied in this area, I have little doubt that steelhead and Chinooks also benefit substantially, and likely sockeye in some habitats (especially steelhead which have an even longer average freshwater rearing period than coho). In the system I am describing, steelhead snorkel counts have increased substantially following an upward trend in pink escapements and have recently been by far the highest observed in the region. So — pink salmon benefit every user group here, not just purse seiners who target them directly, but trollers, seiners, gillnetters, marine & freshwater sport fishers and subsistence users – all whom pursue coho) as well as many marine and terrestrial wildlife values. By boosting fall coho salmon spawning returns, pinks contribute to an important food source for bears, eagles and other scavengers when other food is scarce, long after pinks themselves are no longer directly available in the stream. Chums which tend to be more specific to upwelling areas fill pretty much the same role as pinks, but just tend to be less abundant. Their greatest value is probably in cases where they contribute nutrients at different times and locations. Fall chums that spawn through January in open upwelling areas on the Tsirku Fan in the Chilkat River draw a dense concentration of up to 3,000 eagles that is very important to the tourism economy of Haines.

    Having said all that, it is true that pinks are a major consumer of salmon food in the North Pacific and average size of cohos as well as pinks tends to decrease when pink runs are exceptionally large in this region. Pumping out a lot more hatchery pinks would likely put stress on the food supply, but may not appear as an issue until there is a sudden ocean shift and the food supply decreases. There was substantial declining trend in the size of returning chums over a broad geographic area during the period of vastly increasing hatchery chum production, but the decline suddenly reversed after about 1996, probably due to some change in the ocean that increased the overall supply of their food.

    And of course, pinks returning in concentration to a hatchery provide much less in the way of benefits to streams — except those that stray (and that raises genetic concerns). I’m not completely up on the latest trends in hatchery production on the Pacific Rim but think chum production which increased greatly in Alaska and Japan a couple of decades or more ago is fairly well stabilized — I also understand chums have somewhat of a more unique diet on the high seas that may result in them not competing as much with other species.

    Production of coho and other species from lower-48 and southern B.C. hatcheries has declined greatly from a peak in the 1980s and early 1990s, with the greatest effect in Washington State. Interestingly, coho salmon caught off Vancouver Island and in the Columbia River had undergone a 30 to 40-year decline in average size that had been attributed by different authors to detrimental genetic effects of fishing but almost completely reversed in 10-years, closely tracking the rise and fall of hatchery smolt releases from those areas. I included the observation in a very broad invited paper on coho salmon on the Pacific Rim for the NPAFC a few years ago but unfortunately was limited in total wording by the editor so couldn’t give that interesting area full justice.

    I believe Russian pink production has shown the greatest recent increase in hatchery production. While the distribution of those fish in the ocean may limit density effects mainly to Asia and western Alaska, it has prompted a group of salmon processors to propose that Alaska increase hatchery pink releases by 1 billion fry to hold market share and “stabilize” production. I don’t think there has been too much positive response by hatchery operators or regulators, certainly not in this region where bringing in substantial pink salmon hatchery production would be like bringing coals to Newcastle. It would also complicate and increase the expense of an elegantly simple management system that has worked beautifully since statehood in which pink salmon, because of their abundance and visibility, can be managed very effectively by an experienced and empowered fishery manager observing streams, estuaries, bays and operating fishing vessels from an office in the back seat of a super cub, without any expensive field or laboratory projects to estimate different runs or separate wild from hatchery fish — 100% wild.

    1. WM Avatar


      Thanks for a great tutorial.


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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Ken Cole