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A Grieving Mother and the Perils of Pacific Northwest Salmon Hatcheries

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

The following post was written by a Fish Welfare Initiative volunteer, Margaux Cudaback, who is an undergraduate studying Environmental Policy and Education and Western Washington University. We believe in highlighting the stories of local individuals with the implications of aquaculture and fish welfare within their own communities. If this is something you’re interested in, please reach out.

In July of 2018, the Pacific Northwest welcomed a long overdue Orca calf into the Salish Sea. Onlookers all around the San Juan Islands reported this Orca calf swimming with its mother, Tahlequah, and their pod. There was immense excitement around the birth of this baby calf because of the declining Orca population in the area. Tahlequah’s baby meant hope for future survival of the pod Resident Orcas. Unfortunately, not even an hour later, this bright day turned gloomy. Tahlequah was seen once again, but this time carrying the corpse of her newborn along her fin. News quickly broke that the calf had died, and many began mourning the great loss.

Tahlequah continued to swim around with the corpse still on top of her head for over two weeks, eventually relinquishing her calf to the ocean for its final resting place.

To this day, scientists and reporters are still unsure about how and why the calf died so suddenly. Public concern surrounding the death was never quelled as the calf was not retrieved for an investigation. However, the public was quick to recognize and criticize the detrimental effects of salmon aquaculture on the wild salmon populations in the region and, subsequently, the malnourished mother Orca.

The Resident Orca’s main source of food is typically salmon, including Chinook (King), Coho, Pink, Chum, Sockeye, and Cutthroat. Each of these “keystone” species are essential to their biome. If removed, other species reliant on their existence will slowly collapse in a domino sequence.

In the past decade, salmon run populations have declined due to various external factors. In response, the number of hatcheries has increased all around the Pacific Northwest, especially in the Salish Sea that connects Washington State with Canada. These fish farms have been built in order to prop up the impression of a thriving salmon population, when in reality it continues to decrease year after year.

If hatcheries are built to help restore salmon populations, then why are return rates and populations still continuing to decline?

The U.S. alone stocks and releases over 3.6 billion fish into the ocean; worldwide, this number increases exponentially from anywhere between 35-150 billion fish. Farmers release this obscene amount of hatchery fish every year, and yet nets are still turning up empty. The rationale in defense of this practice lays out a set of steps: produce large quantities of fish, release said fish into the ocean, thereby increasing the population, which then allows fisheries to catch and sell more salmon overall. In reality, there are many more factors that contribute to the current rapid salmon decline, some even caused by the hatcheries themselves. Therefore, the actual solutions are far more complicated than simply adding more fish to the systems.

Hatchery salmon are raised and bred to become the healthiest and strongest salmon possible in order for optimum survival rate when released. However, the process of breeding these “genetically superior” fish has begun to cause harm to the current wild salmon populations and the generations to come.

Without the pressure of predation and the natural environment, hatchery salmon become a major competitor for resources once they merge with the wild populations. Within any fish habitat, the waters have a specific carrying capacity for both food and shelter. At that capacity, these resources are dispersed evenly throughout the salmon population. When hatchery salmon are released all at once, this capacity is quickly reached, leaving the weaker wild salmon with unsafe sheltered areas and significantly less food available. This dearth of resources follows the salmon up until the very ends of their lives, even affecting their ability to compete for optimal spawning grounds and the fertilization of females.

If they aren't competing for food and resources, the wild salmon and hatchery salmon will eventually breed together. While wild salmon appear to be resilient to environmental changes, it’s unclear if this same resilience can be found in hatchery salmon. Each year, salmon at the end of their life cycles return home to spawn. For wild salmon, this usually means the stream they were born in, but for hatchery salmon, this means the hatchery in which they were raised. This leaves farmed salmon reliant on hatcheries for their entire lives

Though juvenile farmed salmon are free from the pressures of predation and the natural environment, their lives are by no means easy. Their stress derives from overcrowding, potential inbreeding, adaptation to captivity, low environmentally enriched enclosures, sudden environmental changes, and in some cases, being released into the ocean by helicopter, resulting in severe injuries or even death. All of this avoidable stress accompanies them into their new ocean life and can make them more susceptible to disease, which can then cause the salmon to have lower survival rates long-term. When they breed with wild salmon, their genetics pass onto the next generation, lowering their overall fitness and reproduction rates further with each new generation. They are strong enough to compete against wild salmon for resources, but weak enough to only live a short life in the open ocean.

In the long term, if these salmon cannot survive on their own without the agricultural structures, then eventually the entirety of salmon populations in the Northwest may grow to rely on hatcheries.

If the Northwest were to become too heavily dependent on hatcheries to provide salmon to the waters, it could create an unbreakable and unstable cycle. A disruption of water or power or a deadly outbreak of disease could devastate the hatcheries, leaving the runs barren of fish.

Hatcheries provide a short-term relief to salmon decline, but cannot sustain numbers long enough to fully restore populations. After visiting a salmon hatchery in Bellingham, Washington, I found that this specific hatchery had actually had issues with return rates in the previous couple of years. The same year that Tahlequah lost her calf, Whatcom County had to end the fishing season six weeks early due low chum salmon return at Whatcom Creek, chum being the most abundant salmon in Washington State. In 2019, the same situation happened again, and Whatcom closed fishing five weeks early due to low returns. Reports for the 2020 season have not been released up until the time of writing this, but based on their recent record, there will most likely be an early closing date. 

It was clear to me at the time of visitation that large scale hatcheries like these have one goal in mind: to produce as many salmon as they can in order to maximize survival rates. It was also clear to me that this correlates with the goal of large scale fisheries as well, which is to catch the maximum amount of salmon possible each year without repercussions. The promotion of hatchery technology misleads the public into thinking they are a necessity for wild salmon populations. These facilities seem to care about productivity and marketing more than the restoration of wild salmon populations.

Salmon are one of the most celebrated fish worldwide and yet they may go completely extinct within the next twenty years due to continual human interference. Restoration of these populations must focus on exponentially lowering the amount of salmon that can be fished every season until we see stable population sizes, as well as halting construction in critical salmon habitats, including dams, deforestation, and stream alterations.

Clearly, the hatchery method of simply adding more fish to plummeting populations is not going to miraculously start working. If we continue down this path, not only will salmon cease to exist, but Orca families like Tahlequah’s, as well as many other species, will follow suit. We need to shift our focus to helping wild salmon recover instead of endlessly trying to introduce new salmon that do not belong.

For more information regarding fishing and aquaculture practices in the United States check out this documentary done by Patagonia titled, Artifishal: The Fight to Save Wild Salmon.


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