01 Nov 2010: Report

Hatch-22: The Problem with
The Pacific Salmon Resurgence

The number of salmon in the Pacific Ocean is twice what it was 50 years ago. But there is a downside to this bounty, as growing numbers of hatchery-produced salmon are flooding the Pacific and making it hard for threatened wild salmon species to find enough food to survive.

by bruce barcott

In the American Northwest, the struggle to save endangered runs of salmon is one of the epic crusades of the contemporary conservation movement. Seventeen strains of Pacific salmon are currently listed as threatened or endangered. Two more are labeled “species of concern,” meaning they are close to jumping onto the list.

So what are we to make of this: A recent study published in the journal Marine and Coastal Fisheries found that the north Pacific Ocean may be nearing the limit of its salmon-carrying capacity. The North Pacific is becoming “overcrowded with salmon,” according to Randall Peterman, one of the study’s authors and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Fisheries Risk Assessment and Management at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. He and his co-author, Seattle-based fisheries biologist Greg Ruggerone, recently set out to compile the most complete set of data on Pacific salmon abundance. What they found is that today’s total Pacific salmon population is twice what it was 50 years ago. “We’re seeing more total salmon now than we’ve ever seen before,” says Peterman.

A surprising number of those fish — more than one in five — originate in hatcheries. And that has created its own set of problems. Masses of
In 1970, hatcheries released 500 million young salmon. By 2008, that figure had jumped to 5 billion.
hatchery-bred salmon are gobbling up smaller fish, krill, and other prey, reducing food supplies in the North Pacific for endangered wild runs and hampering their recovery. In addition, hatchery fish, which come from limited brood stock with less diverse DNA, aren’t as genetically fit as wild salmon to support the long-term survival of the species.

How can numerous Pacific salmon runs be on the verge of extinction while total salmon numbers are straining the limits of the ocean’s capacity to support them?

According to the researchers, the abundance of some salmon species has been caused by a resurgence in wild salmon populations due to productive ocean conditions, as well as to the ever-increasing production of hatchery fish. But the problem is, the resurgence of wild populations hasn’t been universal. Five species of salmon exist in the Pacific: Pink, chum, sockeye, coho, and Chinook. (The Atlantic Ocean has only one species, the Atlantic salmon.) Over the past quarter-century, pink salmon populations from around the Pacific Rim have doubled, thanks, in part, to hatchery production. Other runs, such as Upper Columbia River Chinook and Snake River sockeye, limp along in alarmingly low numbers.

The triumph of industrial salmon hatcheries is written in the numbers. Between 1970 and the late 1980s, the U.S., Canada, and their Pacific Rim neighbors ramped up their hatchery programs and pumped out vast numbers of young salmon. In 1970, hatcheries released around 500 million young salmon into the Pacific. By 2008 (the last year for which data is available), that figure had jumped ten-fold, to 5 billion.

Most of those hatchery fish — about 90 percent — were pink or chum, the most common of the five species of Pacific salmon. Japanese hatcheries pump so many chum salmon into the Pacific that hatchery chum have outnumbered wild chum since the mid-1980s. One-third of Alaska’s 2010 statewide salmon harvest originated from five hatcheries in the Prince William Sound/Copper River region.

(Hatchery-bred Pacific salmon are raised in industrial facilities from eggs and then released as fry into rivers and flushed out to sea with the spring freshets. They are not the same as farm-raised Atlantic salmon, which live out their lives in net pens.)

That flood of hatchery salmon entered the ocean during an auspicious time. Every 30 years or so the Pacific undergoes a regime change,
Young salmon enter a fierce competition for finite food resources in the North Pacific.
switching from an era of colder water temperatures to warmer ones, and then back again. It’s called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Around 1978, the ocean switched from a colder period to a warmer one. (We may now be switching back to a period of cooling, partially offset by the effects of global warming.) That warming boosted the production of phytoplankton, which in turn increased populations of the tiny crustaceans and juvenile fish that salmon feed on.

Put simply, after 1978 there was a lot more salmon food in the ocean. The total number of adult salmon in the North Pacific jumped from roughly 300 million in the 1952-1975 period to nearly 650 million in the 1978-2005 period. Of those 650 million adult salmon, the commercial fishing industry harvests about half. (What happens to those 5 billion hatchery fry? Like their wild counterparts, most get eaten before coming of age.)

The salmon prey buffet is not unlimited, though. When young salmon from around the Pacific Rim leave their rivers, they enter a fierce competition for finite food resources in the great mixing chamber that is the North Pacific. Greg Ruggerone’s previous research found that there are winners and losers out there — and those results may have profound implications for hatchery management, international fisheries agreements, and the future of Pacific salmon.

The winners? Pink salmon. “Pinks are interesting because they’re the smallest and shortest-lived of the salmon species,” Ruggerone told me recently in his office near Fishermen’s Terminal in Seattle, home port for much of America’s North Pacific commercial fishing fleet. “And yet they’re the dominant competitor in the ocean, and the most abundant Pacific salmon species.”

Much of their success lies in the pinks’ two-year life cycle. Young pink salmon hatch in the early spring of an even-numbered year, overwinter in the ocean, then return to spawn — usually in the lower reaches of coastal rivers — in the autumn of the following odd-numbered year. “They have to grow very fast, so they’re programmed to eat lots of food,” says Ruggerone.

Other species have longer, more complicated life cycles. Sockeye salmon typically spawn in or near lakes. They live in freshwater for their first two years, then spend two years in the ocean before making the journey back to
It’s no coincidence that most threatened salmon species are in the West’s most industrialized river systems.
the spawning lake. That journey to and from the lake can be epic. One run of sockeye spawns in Redfish Lake, Idaho — 900 miles from the Pacific. Chinook and coho also spend a lot of their lives in rivers, where they’re susceptible to the wear and tear of dams, industrial pollution, high temperatures, low oxygen, and a sketchier food supply caused by loss of habitat. It’s no coincidence that a majority of the federally listed threatened or endangered Pacific salmon species are Chinook, coho, sockeye, and chum that spend at least part of their lives in two of the West’s most industrialized water systems, Puget Sound and the Columbia River.

Pinks, by contrast, are built for 21st century reproductive success: Dash to the ocean, avoid the human-based threats in the river, eat like fiends, then make the short sprint home to spawn. Pink salmon are conspicuous by their absence from the endangered species list.

And they’re only expected to widen the gap. As climate change forces a warming of marine temperatures, spring phytoplankton blooms — which lead to a boom in zooplankton, aka salmon food — come earlier, which benefits the pinks. Pink salmon are typically the first salmon to enter salt water in spring, ahead of the other salmon species. In Puget Sound, for instance, the peak plankton blooms are arriving earlier. “By the time Chinook salmon reach the sound in June,” says Ruggerone, “there’s less food available because the peak plankton bloom has come and gone. And the pink salmon have already eaten much of it.”

So even before they move from Puget Sound into the open ocean, the pinks are well fed and strong, Chinooks less so. When pinks compete with other salmon for food, pinks win.

Consider this contest: pinks vs. sockeye. Every year more than 1.4 billion hatchery pinks are flushed into the ocean, mostly from the Russian Far

Image Gallery
sockeye salmon

U.S. Fish and Wildlife
The pink salmon is the most abundant of the five salmon species of the Pacific. Learn more about the Pacific salmon species.
East (400 million) and Alaska (850 million). During odd-numbered years, those hatchery pinks mix with abundant runs of wild pinks. (Nobody’s sure why even-year wild pink runs are markedly weaker, but they are.) At the same time, wild and hatchery sockeye enter the ocean and mix with the pinks in the North Pacific and the Bering Sea. During even-numbered years, when the pink numbers are down, sockeye growth is above average. But during odd-numbered years, when the North Pacific is flooded with hungry young pinks, sockeye growth is below average, and fewer young sockeye survive.

All of this wouldn’t be a worry if hatchery salmon were the equal of wild salmon. But they’re not. Until recently, most hatchery salmon came from a small pool of eggs, with little thought given to matching hatchery runs with broodstock from their river of origin. The genius of the salmon species, of course, lies within their diverse DNA, with each run exquisitely adapted to the conditions of its home river. Hatchery fish, for the most part, have dumber DNA. And the advantage hatchery pinks have over wild runs of other salmon species is only expected to increase as ocean temperatures rise as a result of climate change.

In a controversial study, University of Washington fisheries professor Ray Hilborn and Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Doug Eggers
‘We’re seeing very clear signs that the north Pacific Ocean is reaching its limit for salmon,’ says a researcher.
published research suggesting that hatcheries played little part in Alaska’s great pink salmon boom. The state’s commercial pink salmon catch grew from 3 million fish in the 1970s to more than 20 million in the 1980s, after the installation of industrial hatcheries, and the boom is popularly attributed to the hatcheries. Hilborn and Eggers argued, however, that the same boom would have happened without the hatcheries because of more favorable ocean conditions — and those runs would have been wild, not tank-raised.

“What we did with hatcheries was take a free way of making fish, and turn it into an expensive way of making fish,” Hilborn told me.

The implications of the research by Hilborn, Peterson, Ruggerone, and others is starting to affect policy decisions. Over the past decade, a wave of hatchery reform — designed to help wild runs, rather than hurt them — has swept through the industry in Washington State. In Alaska, state regulators are starting to push back. Earlier this year the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation, one of the world’s largest salmon hatchery operators, asked permission to release an additional 95 million pink salmon fry. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game denied the request — a rare refusal of the politically powerful fishing industry. The state wanted to safeguard wild salmon runs against genetic mixing with the hatchery stocks, and was concerned that the increase might push the North Pacific to a tipping point. (The state did approve increases in the company’s chum and sockeye releases.)

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While it’s possible to stop, or at least slow, increases in hatchery releases in the U.S., it’s nearly impossible to do much about it beyond our borders. Russia has aggressively increased its pink salmon hatchery production, and Russian officials have spoken about their plans to build still more hatcheries. Those pinks will put more pressure on the common pool in the North Pacific, but other nations don’t have the political muscle to block them. The North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission — an organization of fisheries officials from the U.S., Canada, Japan, Russia, and the Republic of Korea — was set up in the early 1990s to promote the conservation of fish in the North Pacific, but it has no teeth. “Quite frankly, there’s no regulatory authority right now,” says Peterman.

So for now, hatcheries will continue to pump more and more salmon into the system. “Ecosystems have limits,” says Ray Hilborn. “And we’re seeing very clear signs that the north Pacific Ocean is reaching its limit for salmon.”

POSTED ON 01 Nov 2010 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Climate Energy Oceans Policy & Politics Sustainability North America North America 

COMMENTS


Bruce, a fascinating article.

A different facet of the topic: http://crosscut.com/blog/crosscut/19897/Save-the-land!-Eat-fish!/

Posted by Judy Lightfoot on 02 Nov 2010


Interesting article, I have to say. However, I also have to make a comment. You can never please a green. Every silver cloud has a dark lining.

While I can understand the concern over the diversity of the salmon population and the possible overpopulation of salmon in the foreseeable future, trying to play the current salmon boom as anything but a good thing is being simply ridiculous.

Posted by Ben on 02 Nov 2010


The comment that there are more salmon in the Pacific Ocean than ever before is disengenious and broad. There probably are more fish than there was 50 years ago, thanks to hatcheries, but there could well have been way more 100 years ago or even 75. Habitat degradation in the lower 48 has done more to hurt salmon runs than anything. Canada's disastorous and ridiculous management of their salmon resources has also destroyed or weakened numerous runs. We need these hatcheries to feed a very hungry world. Salmon, inexpensive salmon, is an excellent source of protein.

Posted by Max Worhatc on 03 Nov 2010


Perhaps unwittingly this is a biased piece of reporting, at least to the extent that it reports only one side of a long-running debate in fisheries science. I'd be glad to provide Barcott with the other side side of the debate in the form of published peer-reviewed papers.

In elementary ecology we learn that density dependent mortality can restrain population size when populations are large, as the aggregate populations of the 5 main species of Pacific salmon populations have been over the past 30 yr, in part due to hatchery production primarily in Japan and Alaska.

The evidence of density dependence that Barcott refers to, however, is circumstantial and mostly of density effects on individual growth and size. One would think this would immediately translate into reductions of survival, but the historical evidence is contrary--the great preponderance of Pacific salmon stocks, including wild stocks, have experienced remarkably high abundance during the past 30 yr when hatchery production has been high.

Worhatc is wrong. There have been more wild Pacific salmon in the ocean in the past 30 yr, maybe more than ever, certainly more than 50 yr ago. This is primarily a consequence of a shift in the climate of the North Pacific 35 yr ago but also a consequence of the roughly simultaneous reduction of high seas fishing.

Worhatc is also wrong about Canada. The high abundance of wild adult salmon in British Columbia in 2010 was unprecedented.

What Barcott and many others fail to recognize is that the two large hatchery programs, those of Japan and Alaska, have as their main purpose the economic sustainability of local family-scale harvesters and the small coastal communities where they live. Economic sustainability requires the hatchery resource that is available every year and cannot be realized when the local economies depend on a wild salmon resource that has not been harvestable every fifth year, even in the recent era of high abundances. Without these hatchery programs these coastal communities would fade. Or become entertainment economies for rich tourists.

I'm a retired salmon biology professor from the University of Alaska

Posted by Bill Smoker on 05 Nov 2010


Puleese-

The wild stock abundance you point to in bc was unprecedented. However, like all scientists, you always refer to data that supports your theory, and dismiss data or evidence that doesn't. The Frazier sockeye run up until this season has been a dismil, classic example or how to ruin a natural run. It is also important to note that FISHERY BIOLOGISTS predicted this run to be nowhere near where it was supposed to be. I assume the biologist that did this were probably schooled much the same way you were, used the same scientific methods, etc. My point here is that even the experts in this field are groping in the dark, making assumptions, etc. They just agree that they obviously do not have a handle on it. It is pretty obvious they don't. It is also important to note that the Frazier river is only ONE natural run in BC.. How are the Vancouver IS. stocks these days? The Nass and Skeena?

Your contention that there are more fish than ever is a personal opinion, not a fact. You cannot prove it. For ever hatchery that has popped up, there has been an absence of fish is some other system somewhere else. Nothing is static. Some runs have even disappeared to apparent natural reasons. Glacial rebound, beaver population increases, even naturally occurring land slides.

When the phrase "extrapolation rate" is used we all know the number is subjective.

Posted by Max Worhatch on 06 Nov 2010


As a fisheries biologist, I've followed the scientific literature suggesting that oceanic density dependence is occurring for Pacific salmonids. Hence, hatchery production tends to be more successful off the continental USA when ocean conditions are better, i.e., colder. Indeed, colder conditions are better for coastal upwelling that brings up nutrients that power the food web. By contrast, warmer interdecadal periods tend to cause crunches for both wild and hatchery salmonids, with the latter showing relatively poor survival because of their lesser adaptations to natural-stream environments. Hence, hatchery production tends to have limited usefulness then.

Posted by Robert L. Vadas, Jr. on 08 Nov 2010


Thanks for an interesting report. I hope you keep digging on this issue, because you're scratching the surface here.

And there are SIX species of salmon in the Pacific--you missed the Masu or cherry salmon--not including steelhead and cutthroat, which should probably be included.

Keep going!!

Posted by Rob Russell on 11 Nov 2010


Bruce, great article. I am a chef, fly fisherman, and salmon conservationist. I write an article on sustainable seafood for www.CHEFnews.com and I appreciate the work you are doing to inform the public of the difference between hatchery and wild salmon.

Keep in mind that Bristol Bay is 100% wild salmon w/o hatchery assistance. Bristol Bay
salmon are about 21% of total AK commercial harvest by pounds. As of Nov. 5th 2010 total
harvest 810,630 total pounds. 168,650 pounds from Bristol Bay. If you backout Bristol Bay, the total harvest is 632,980 pounds. With 256,521 pounds coming from hatchery fish (based on 32% hatchery fish harvest). This actually makes over 40% of the AK commercial harvest is of hatchery origin. (are you aware of any other AK fisheries that are 100% wild like Bristol Bay?)

THE MSC has a lot of work to do before word gets out. This could discredit their entire certification process!

Considering 95% of the salmon sold to consumers is from Alaska and over 32% of those are from hatcheries and over 40% if you backout Bristol Bay and with about 80% of the salmon in OR and WA coming from hatcheries there is a pretty clear issue with 'wild' salmon!

Keep up the good reporting!

Posted by bryan szeliga on 02 Jan 2011


This writer is very naive and careless with his scientific facts. To lump all species of salmon together and to draw conclusions of survival based on assumptions, not science, only adds turbidity to the issue. It muddies the waters, adds confusion and may be a reflection of (to use his words) dumber DNA.
Here are the facts:

Food Habits
In the sea, young pink salmon feed on small crustaceans and plankton, shifting their diet to include shrimp-like crustaceans and fishes as they grow. Other foods include mussel shrimps, crayfish larvae, barnacles, tunicates and insects.

The food of the marine adult chinook consists mainly of fish and some invertebrates such as squids, shrimps, crab larvae and other crustaceans.

The food of the marine adult coho is more varied than that of many pacific salmon and consists mostly of fish and invertebrates. In the Great Lakes, the bulk of the food of larger coho consists of rainbow smelt and alewifes.

He is wrong about most hatchery reared salmon being released to the ocean in the fry stage of development. Most are raised to the smolt stage where it is argued that they are less able to compete with wild stocks because they were trained to feed on the surface with pellets.

In the early 20th century there were some 20 million annual returning salmon to the Columbia River. Assuming a 2% return for salmon, wouldn’t that require 1 billion smolts each year being flushed into the ocean from the Columbia River drainage alone? Hatch-22, I don’t think so.

Posted by Ray Anders on 18 Apr 2011


"The number of salmon in the Pacific Ocean is twice what it was 50 years ago"

oh, you mean at the peak of commercial fishing and the total lack of conservation? hardly anything to compare too.

though no figures exist, 200 years ago there were billions more fish then you could imagine.

last year the fraser had a record return of fish. somewhere in the range of 30 million.

15 million were harvested... thats more then half the run! imagine 20 years ago when less then 1 million were taken. the run size would be in the 50-100 million range with no fishing pressure. that being true, the other small streams would be equally huge compared to today's standards.

the reason catch rates were so low for pinks in the 50s- 70s was because nobody wanted them. the other runs were so large, who would target pinks?
from a commercial stand point, it takes 600-700 pinks to make the same amount of money as 100-200 chinook, and the pinks are twice the work. (cleaning 600-700 fish over 100-200)the rise in capture is because of the other stocks demise.

hatcheries are helping runs that are near extinction due to commercial and sport fishing pressure survive.

Posted by Aidan on 10 Aug 2011


Comments have been closed on this feature.
bruce barcottABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bruce Barcott is an environmental journalist whose articles have appeared in Outside Magazine, National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, and OnEarth magazine. A 2009 Guggenheim Fellow in nonfiction, he is the author of the book The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw. He is working on a narrative history of the battle over salmon and treaty rights in the Pacific Northwest.
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