Salmon hatcheries under microscope

Oct 17, 2002, vol. 25, no. 4
By Carol Thorbes

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British Columbia hatcheries release about 500 million young salmon into coastal rivers annually, but are these artificial incubators actually enhancing salmon stocks?

Or does this prolific propagation actually have a negative net impact - perhaps reducing the genetic diversity of naturally spawning salmon and heightening the risk of their extinction?

That's the $64 million question posed in a new report produced by Simon Fraser University's centre for coastal studies (CCS) and continuing studies in science.

Hatcheries and the Protection of Wild Salmon summarizes the observations and conclusions reached by 40 members of various stakeholder communities (govern-ment, aboriginal, industry, non-government organizations) in a think tank session on hatcheries.

The CCS organized and facilitated the think-tank session and a workshop leading up to it. The think tank's report urges all stakeholders to create a working committee to build “a consensus-based hatchery reform program.”

“There has not been enough science done over the many years that hatcheries have been in place to assess their impact on wild salmon,” notes Rick Routledge.

The SFU statistician is a CCS member and a co-author of the think tank's report, which highlights stakeholders' mounting concerns.

Among them are “the escalating numbers of declarations of threatened or endangered salmon populations” and the impending expansion of B.C.s' salmon farms despite evidence that they adversely impact wild salmon.
Think tank participants reviewed evidence that hatchery supplementation can threaten genetic diversity and pit wild and artificially reared salmon against each other in a fight for food.

There is also evidence that hatchery practices may have a more negative impact on wild salmon than aquaculture (salmon farming) in some circumstances.

“There's a lot of evidence suggesting that nature, not humans, produces fitter salmon,” says Craig Orr, (above) CCS associate director and co-author of the think tank's report. “Is the best use of the current $25 million plus budget of the federal salmon enhancement program to artificially produce fish? Or should more of it be spent fixing habitat? Or ensuring that fewer fish are killed as they return to spawn?”

Orr notes, “These are pertinent questions when you consider that in the last two years B.C. has lost more than $40 million in annual funding for natural fish habitat restor-ation and stewardship.”

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