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The trouble with hatcheries

Posted: October 10, 2013 - 4:04pm

During the past few years, for reasons that remain largely unknown, king salmon returns throughout Alaska have been dismal. Desperate for a “fix,” some fishermen propose that hatchery-raised king salmon are the answer.

It’s more likely that hatcheries are part of the problem. Since 1970, the combined efforts of the U.S., Canada and other Pacific Rim countries have increased the number of hatchery-raised salmon released into the Pacific from 500 million to 5 billion fish. About 90 percent of these hatchery-released fish are chum and pink salmon. Since the mid-1980s, hatchery chums have outnumbered wild chums in the ocean.

Alaska’s many pink-salmon hatcheries just might be one of the problems with its king salmon runs. Pinks are hard-wired to eat lots and grow fast. They hatch in the spring, migrate to the ocean as fry the same year, overwinter in the ocean and return the following fall. It’s no coincidence that pinks aren’t on the endangered species list.

In 2010, one-third of the salmon in Alaska’s statewide commercial salmon harvest were released into the ocean by five non-profit hatcheries in Prince William Sound.

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute hypes these hatchery fish as being just as “Wild, Natural and Sustainable” as wild fish. A large number of these “wild” and “natural” salmon hatch and rear in very un-wild and unnatural environments, and it’s arguable whether they are sustainable. Worse, study findings indicate that they can threaten the sustainability of wild salmon.

“Ocean ranching,” the marketers call it, so as to keep these hatchery-raised fish from being mistaken for “farmed” salmon. Salmon farms grow salmon to harvestable size in pens. Hatcheries, on the other hand, raise salmon to a size that optimizes their chances of survival, then release them in the ocean. Real ranchers know how many cattle their ranches can support, but not the fish hatcheries. They just keep pumping more fish into the ocean.

The failure to recognize that the ocean is a finite “ranch,” and continuing to release vast numbers of hatchery salmon into it is bound to have unintended consequences. Wild salmon, as well as a multitude of other animals, have to compete with hatchery-raised salmon for a finite amount of food in the ocean. A recent study of chum salmon in the Bering Sea found evidence that large-scale production of chum salmon from Asian hatcheries may affect size, age-at-maturation, productivity and abundance of wild chum populations in Alaska.

Hatcheries acclimate salmon to conditions unlike those found by fish that hatch naturally, in a stream. Trouble is, when released, hatchery-raised fish take what they’ve learned into the ocean, everything from feeding habits to predator avoidance. What they learn in the hatchery is anything but natural.

Straying is another problem that comes from augmenting a natural salmon run with hatchery stock. While most salmon return to their natal streams, a few stray. Straying isn’t all bad. Strays help to repopulate streams where salmon have been extinguished. However, straying can become harmful when strays mate with salmon from a wild stock. The offspring of these fish may not have the run timing or the “homing guidance system” of the wild stock. When this happens often enough, the genetic makeup of the wild stock may be altered, eventually threatening its viability.

The use of fish hatcheries to restore and augment salmon runs has a long history of failure in the Pacific Northwest, and is now threatening wild salmon stocks in the ocean. Augment our king salmon runs with hatchery fish? That’s crazy talk.

Les Palmer can be reached at

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kenai123 10/11/13 - 11:24 am
Juvenal king salmon starving to death?

Sent: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 6:56 PM
To: Josephson, Ronald P (ADFG)
Subject: Juvenal king salmon starving to death?

Dear Mr. Josephson,

I have received your below letter which was written to me regarding my letter to the ADF&G Commissioner Campbell on August 03, 2013. My letter claimed that our ADF&G is (artificially and excessively) hatchery inflating/enhancing sockeye salmon at the expense of king salmon. My claim results from scientific ocean information which has proved that both sockeye and juvenal king salmon feed on the same food source. That food source is crab larvae. Sockeyes feed on this larvae when it is smaller than a quarter inch in length and juvenal kings feed on it when it approaches a half inch in length. Marine science is now showing us that we still have good numbers of this quarter inch crab larvae but 98% of the larger half inch larvae is now completely missing. This half inch larvae is what our juvenal kings require to reach the adult stage of their life. Without good numbers of this larger larvae many of our juvenal kings will stave to death and never even have a chance to switch over to feeding on larger and different forage.

My letter to you specifically regarded this new juvenal king and sockeye feeding conflict. You responded to me by claiming that "only 2 - 5% of our returning Alaska salmon are of hatchery origin and therefore not able to cause a food competition concern". I then went and researched the actual numbers regarding what is (wild and hatchery with regard to salmon in Alaska). I found that your numbers only reference the percent of salmon resource which is used to seed ADF&G hatchery production and that resulting production is around 1.5 billion salmon artificially dumped into Alaska waters each year. These hatchery stocks therefore compete directly for the same food source as our juvenal wild kings. This comes down to the State of Alaska funding billions (artificial reasons each year) for a juvenal (wild) king salmon to starve to death in our ocean.

My letter claims a triple barrel destructive effect being created by different sources, to kill king salmon. An ADF&G artificial sockeye enhancement/king starvation effect, a commercial fisheries Pollock trawler killing effect and the resulting extra heavy commercial gill netting effect "necessary to harvest" the excess returning sockeyes. This triple barrel effect basically kills off both juvenal and adult kings and leaves very few kings to even attempt to escape into our freshwater river and streams to spawn.

I do not understand your claim that only 5% of our salmon resource is involved within this sockeye/king competition for crab larvae within our ocean. Your numbers appear to reference the returning adult salmon taken by the ADF&G to seed hatchery production and not the resulting 1.5 billion artificial mouths this hatchery production produces to consume the ocean feed which should be available for juvenal wild kings.

Regarding the information you sent me related to the Chinook Salmon Stock Assessment and Research Plan, 2013. I have reviewed this information and see that there are many more questions than there are answers in this plan. I also see that various locations within Alaska have been recommended by the ADF&G for "stable funding for annual juvenile CWT- tagging programs". I see that only the Unuk, Stikine and Chilkat Rivers are being requested for funding a juvenile tagging program. I would specifically like to know why only these rivers have been selected for a juvenile tagging program?

I would also like to know if this tagging program is for juvenile kings or what kind of fish?

I see this kind of program to be absolutely necessity for an immediate statewide ADF&G study which tags juvenile kings and monitors their transition into adulthood.

I believe that our kings are not making this juvenile/adulthood transition because they are starving to death in the ocean.

There may be many reasons for an adult king salmon not returning to its home river or stream but I am claiming that we as the people of Alaska should not

be funding additional reasons for a king salmon to not return home to its freshwater rivers and streams.


1.) I would like to know why we are not requesting a statewide juvenile king salmon CWT tagging program to monitor all wild king salmon transiting into adulthood?

2.) I would like to know why the State of Alaska is funding hatchery reasons for our juvenile wild kings to starve to death in our ocean?

3.) I would like to know if you agree with my 1.5 billion hatchery sockeye salmon plantings in Alaska waters each year?

4.) I would also like to know if the above tagging program is for juvenile wild kings or what kind of fish?

I desire to see a statewide ADF&G study (which proves one way or the other) if our juvenile wild kings are transitioning into adulthood.

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions.

kingsize 11/03/13 - 10:32 am
King Salmon Being Decimated by the State!

Kenai 123, I could not agree more. I to have done a lot of research into our continuing decline of the Kenai River King Salmon numbers, not to mention this decline state wide. The State of Alaska, ADF&G is putting to many stocked fish into our Alaska Oceans. There are to many hatchery raised salmon eating all the food from these salt waters. There is a much larger effort being done to stock Sockeye, (Reds), salmon than the State will admit. It is the real money fish for Alaska, (and ADF&G), so therefore the effort to keep as many of these salmon coming back to Alaska is large and on going. Concerning our Kenai River reds, ADF&G takes reds from Hidden Lake every August and raises them at Trail Lakes Hatchery to the optimum size and health for them to survive the best at sea and to return in satisfactory, (increasing), numbers. And the Kenai River is not the only fishery in this State that this is going on in, and how about Canada, Japan, Russia, the list goes on. The numbers they are pumping into our oceans are phenomenal, would shock most Alaskan Residents if they only knew. These stocked hatchery raised fish are quite literally eating all the food in the ocean that wild stocks need in order to survive. What is the answer, sad to say with all the money involved, the mighty King Salmon may very well be on it's way out. Which brings me to recent articles in the Clarion about "Concerving the Kenai River King Salmon", and the 10 part series that starts Sunday Nov. 3rd. In my opinion, this is all a "smoke and mirrors" action that will try to take the spotlight off the hatchery stocking programs in the State, (the real problem), and try to blame it on a series of other circumstances that are nothing but lip service. Stuff like up and down cycles, ocean warming, sportsfishermen, in river problems, hydrocarbons, wakes, river clarity, ect. None of these things are responsible for the King Salmon declines we are seeing in Alaska, it is all in the ocean, what's being put in there and what is going on there, that's where the trouble is. In my life I have always found that if you want to find the source of a problem that effects the down turn of a species or environment or impact there of, follow the money. It's always about the money. The 30 million bucks given to ADF&G by the governor to "fix" the King problem,, probably went into their retirement funds, nothing has been done and nothing will be done, there is no money in it for them, end of story!

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