Report Shows Alaska's Ocean-Ranching Hatcheries Could Pose Significant Threat to Wild Salmon

Mon, 10/29/2001

Report Shows Alaska's Ocean-Ranching Hatcheries Could Pose Significant Threat to Wild Salmon

Report Shows Alaska’s Ocean-Ranching Hatcheries Could Pose Significant Threat to Wild Salmon

Overloading Alaskan waters with hatchery-reared salmon may cause irreversible damage to wild stocks

Jan Konigsberg , Director, Alaska Salmonid Biodiversity Program , Trout Unlimited 907/248-0693
Director, Alaska Salmonid Biodiversity Program
Trout Unlimited

10/30/2001 -- Anchorage, Alaska -- 

A report released today by Trout Unlimited raises serious concerns that Alaska’s large-scale, salmon hatchery program may jeopardize the health and future of wild salmon stocks in Alaskan waters and beyond. The report, "Evaluating Alaska’s Ocean-Ranching Salmon Hatcheries: Biologic and Management Issues," is available online at and was authored by the University of Alaska’s Environment and Natural Resource Institute (ENRI), and commissioned by the Alaska Salmonid Biodiversity Program of Trout Unlimited (TU).

The ENRI report concludes that Alaska’s ocean-ranching salmon hatcheries have been allowed to operate largely unchecked despite mounting scientific evidence and concerns about potential harm to wild salmon stocks-concerns that have dogged the hatchery program since its inception. The report reveals an appalling lack of data to substantiate the claims of hatchery proponents that hatchery fish pose no risk to wild salmon. To the contrary, available data suggests that Alaska’s large-scale ocean-ranching program does indeed harm wild fish, notably the pink salmon of western Prince William Sound.

"The key message of this report is that Alaska’s salmon-ranching program lacks biological justification," states Jan Konigsberg, Director of TU’s Alaska office. "TU enthusiastically supports policies, programs, and actions that protect our wild salmon. Unfortunately, available evidence suggests that Alaska’s industrial-scale salmon ranching is not in line with Alaska’s wild stock priority statute nor its Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy."

The ENRI report analyzes key concerns about the effects of hatchery production on wild salmon biodiversity-the genetic, biological, ecological, and behavioral characteristics enabling salmon to survive and thrive. These concerns include fish culture practices; competition between hatchery and wild fish for food and space; genetic effects from interbreeding of hatchery and wild fish; and managing harvests in fisheries where hatchery and wild salmon are mixed.

"The state of Alaska has essentially been running these hatcheries in the dark in terms of understanding their impacts on wild salmon," said Konigsberg. "But lack of data confirming harmful impacts on wild salmon is not an acceptable rationale for continuing to flood the ocean with large-scale hatchery-releases."

Virtually all populations of North America’s Atlantic salmon are threatened with extinction, and Pacific salmon have been lost from nearly half of their original range on the Pacific Coast of the U.S. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, salmon abundance is about 10 percent of what it was at the turn of the last century–devastated by dams, habitat alteration, intense fishing, and misuse of hatcheries.

"Because Alaska is the greatest remaining reservoir of salmon genetic diversity, the state has a special obligation to protect its wild salmon populations," urged Ben Greene, PhD, TU-Alaska Associate Director.

The ENRI report takes to task assumptions and management practices that have been used to justify Alaska’s industrial-scale hatchery program as "supplementing" the annual variability of wild salmon abundance, thereby "enhancing" the value of the statewide salmon harvest, such as:

  • The belief that the ocean has limitless carrying capacity for salmon and other species.
  • The ability of fisheries management to protect wild salmon when harvesting mixed hatchery and wild stocks.
  • The claim that fish-culture practices are abiding by applicable policies and management plans.

Based on the ENRI report, TU has several recommendations (see below) to reform the Alaskan salmon ranching program to protect wild populations, including shutting down Prince William Sound pink salmon hatcheries and establishing wild salmon stock "genetic preserves"–repositories of genetic information that will conserve adaptive traits in Alaskan salmon that cannot be duplicated in hatcheries. Additionally, TU recommends that the practice of marketing all Alaskan salmon as naturally "wild" by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute be halted, and that such marketing acknowledges that hatchery fish comprise up to 80 percent of the catch in some fisheries. TU calls for salmon to be held to the same "truth-in-advertising" standard as other food products.

Konigsberg says that "on the basis of the ENRI paper, Trout Unlimited believes Alaska’s hatchery program has been the catalyst in an unfortunate biology experiment in which hatchery-created salmon in the free-range, ocean pasture pose a greater threat to Alaska’s wild salmon than do escaped Atlantic salmon from salmon farms to the south. Alaska’s reputation for sustainable salmon fisheries management would seem to demand that it reform its aquaculture programs, at the same time insisting that British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest, Japan, Russia, and Korea do likewise."

Trout Unlimited Recommendations for Reforming Alaska’s Ocean-Ranching Hatchery Program

  • No public funding of industrial-scale hatchery production. It makes no sense for U.S. and Alaskan taxpayers to fund activities that may be hurting Alaska’s wild and sustainable salmon populations. Yet in 2001, the Department of Fish and Game granted nearly $4 million from the Southeast Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund (SSSF) for hatcheries or hatchery-related projects. The SSSF is the repository of federal monies authorized for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery program, which is intended to promote the recovery of wild salmon populations. These funds should not be used to subsidize salmon-ranching.
  • Publicly-funded salmon marketing programs must distinguish hatchery-produced and wild fish. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which depends upon state and federal funds, markets all Alaska salmon as naturally wild, even though hatchery-produced salmon can account for nearly 80% of the catch in some fisheries. This is a public relations disaster in the making if it becomes public knowledge that many of the so-called "wild fish" were spawned in plastic buckets, raised in concrete raceways, fed manufactured pellets and flushed with fungicides. TU is calling for truth in advertising–hatchery-produced salmon should be marketed as such.
  • No "eco-labeling" of either hatchery-produced or wild salmon harvested in mixed hatchery/wild stock fisheries, including claims of both "sustainable" and "organic." The much-touted Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) certification of the sustainability of the Alaskan salmon fishery fails to acknowledge the threat of ocean-ranching salmon hatcheries to the sustainability of wild salmon. MSC labeling must distinguish between hatchery and wild salmon.
  • Shut-down Prince William Sound (PWS) pink salmon hatcheries, which have unacceptably high straying rates. From the beginning of the Prince William Sound hatchery projects, scientists have been concerned about the potential of millions of hatchery-produced pinks interbreeding with wild pink salmon. Sufficient data now exists demonstrating that hatchery salmon have displaced wild pink stocks and are a continuing threat to the Prince William Sound ecosystem. Quite likely, there are no longer any wild pink salmon in western Prince William Sound. These hatcheries are operated under permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The permits for these hatcheries should be revoked.
  • Within one year, conduct a comprehensive scientific and management audit by an independent, interdisciplinary scientific team to ascertain whether hatchery operations are in accordance with current biologic, genetic and ecologic understanding for maintaining salmon biodiversity and with the Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy. The purpose of the audit is to strengthen ADF&G’s oversight of hatchery operations to ensure collection and timely analysis of all necessary data to evaluate the impacts of hatchery fish on wild fish; establish astringent program to quantify and track stray rates and assess impact of strays on wild stocks; review existing hatchery-related statutes, policies, and regulations to ascertain compliance with the Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy.
  • Revise the Genetics Policy to incorporate the best available science. The Genetics Policy was last updated in 1985. Since 1985, technologies have been developed that increase our ability to distinguish wild and hatchery fish and more knowledge has accumulated about genetic impacts of hatchery fish on wild stocks. The Genetics Policy should be updated and adopted by regulation.
  • Establish wild stock genetic preserves. The Genetics Policy recommends designation of hydrologic basins or geographic areas as gene preserves—perpetual repositories of genetic information for all plant and animal species inhabiting such areas. Currently, there are no designated Wild Stock Genetic Preserves in Alaska for salmon species.

The above recommendations are consistent with Trout Unlimited’s North American Salmonid Policy.

Date: 10/30/2001


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