Considerations for international limits on salmon hatchery production

By Neyssa Hays


Salmon conservation and management are complicated issues, in which the international hatchery system plays a significant, if not always beneficial, role. This paper is a brief examination of salmon hatcheries, especially those of the Northern Pacific in general and the Pacific Northwest more specifically; their effects on wild salmon populations; attempts to mitigate those effects; and potential guiding principals, public policy, or international agreements that could be used to guide interstate and international discussions on collaborative efforts.


The management of salmon (Oncorynchus spp. and Salmo salar) as both free organisms and a natural resource is a complex and often contentious issue with no clear answers. No one questions the value of salmon, per se; around the world salmon are prized for many tangible and intangible reasons including, but certainly not limited to, their importance as a keystone species, jobs, nourishment, beauty, and symbolism. However, as Lackey (2013) documents, though public polls show people value and support “saving the salmon,” there are so many other issues with which we must contend that conservation measures are often set aside for a later time.

However, in combination with their anthropologic significance and as a result of their life history pattern, salmon are at the center of a great debate that has been raging for nearly 150 years: how can we have both healthy nature and mass industry? Salmon move through and live in or near environments most heavily used by humans throughout their lives, and as the forests, rivers, estuaries, and oceans on which the salmon depend degrade, pressures on salmon populations are steadily increasing, placing many salmon species on the Endangered and Threatened Species List. There are many reasons for the salmon’s initial decline and subsequently depressed populations and there have been many attempts at reparation. The salmon hatchery system (from here out called “hatcheries”) has been both an attempt to repair the populations and an exacerbating part of the decline.

Because of the deleterious effects in some areas hatchery managers and conservation non-government organizations (NGOs) are working on various management strategies to reduce the negative impacts hatcheries have on wild salmon (Holt et al. 2008; Kaeriyama et al. 2011; Kostow 2012). Additionally, due to the international nature of ocean-going organisms, including salmon, there exists a need for cooperation and collaboration between international governing bodies to reduce the impacts in the ocean of hatchery salmon (Zaporozhets and Zaporozhets 2004; Holt et al. 2008; Kaeriyama et al. 2011; Kostow 2012; Rand et al. 2012). Unfortunately, there currently exists no multi-national organization, governing body, or clear doctrine encouraging such collaboration (Holt et al. 2008; Rand et al. 2012). However, there are several domestic and international agreements that when put together could be used for the creation of guiding principles and governing bodies.

Definition of Terms

The terms “wild,” “hatchery,” and “natural,” can mean different things depending on the context of their use. For instance, in the grocery stores, the term “wild salmon” indicates the fish was caught in a net in the “wild” (usually open ocean), as opposed to having been raised completely in captivity, regardless of where or in what conditions it was born. For the purposes of this paper, however, the terms are defined thus: a “wild fish” is one that was spawned in a natural stream or river from lineage of fish also spawned in a natural stream or river; unless otherwise noted, a “hatchery fish” is a fish that was spawned using artificial methods in a hatchery setting; “natural spawning” is spawning in a stream or riverbed without the aid of humans, regardless of whether the fish is of wild or hatchery heritage; finally, “artificial spawning” is a human-dominated process in which female salmon are stripped of their eggs, males are “milked” for their milt, the eggs and milt are mixed together, and placed in special incubators.

Effects of Hatchery Salmon on Wild Salmon

With the vast and growing scientific evidence about hatchery effects on wild salmon, there is very little argument that hatchery fish have an overall detrimental impact on wild fish (Lichatowitch 1999; Zaporozhets and Zaporozhets 2004; Holt et al. 2008; Kaeriyama et al. 2011; Grant 2012; Kostow 2012; Katz et al. 2013; Lackey 2013). Among these effects, Kostow (2012) lists the most commonly documented as hatchery fish predation of wild fish; competition for resources; predator attraction; disease transmission; and “density dependent effects triggered by large numbers of hatchery fish in freshwater and marine environments.”

At the extreme end, in both Russia and the United States, researchers have documented entire wild populations of a river system going extinct within twenty years of a large hatchery being opened (Zaporozhets and Zaporozhets 2004; Kostow 2012). Clearly this goes against conservation of the species. Highlighting five different management plans currently in effect in various places in Oregon to reduce these impacts and hopefully increase wild salmon populations, Kostow (2012) notes that the different strategies are having mixed results, but are generally positive.

Recently, researchers and conservation NGOs have become increasingly concerned about the effects hatchery salmon are having on wild salmon and the rest of the ecology in the open oceans. Preliminary studies indicate that there is strong resource and spatial competition in the oceans, which is expected to worsen as the effects of ocean acidification, pollution, and resource extraction take their course and resources diminish (Zaporozhets and Zaporozhets 2004; Sabine 2011; Daly 2012; Kostow 2012). Though studies show that one-on-one, wild salmon dominate hatchery salmon when competing for resources, hatchery salmon in the open ocean can easily overwhelm wild salmon simply by outnumbering them (Zaporozhets and Zaporozhets 2004; Daly et al. 2012; Metcalf et al. 2013). During poor ocean-condition years, this effect is magnified, especially when hatcheries release smolts based on factors other than available resources (Daly et al. 2012).

Global Considerations for Hatchery Management

Because of the international nature of managing the open oceans combined with the salmon’s anadromous life history, the question of hatchery management is evolving from a domestic discussion to one of international concern (Zaporozhets and Zaporozhets 2004; Holt et al. 2008; Kaeriyama et al. 2011; Rand et al. 2012). Every U.S. state and nation state of the Northern Pacific and Northern Atlantic has an extensive salmon hatchery system (SOS 2013). In the open ocean salmon do not differentiate based on nation of origin; they compete with each other indiscriminately. Therefore, there is a growing interest in balancing releases from hatcheries of the entire Northern hemisphere. However, as Holt et al. (2008) discuss, due to issues related to food security, domestic and international economics, and sovereignty, there is great potential for political tension to thwart international efforts at restructuring the hatchery system. Recent court actions regarding catch support their analysis.

In Salmon Spawning & Recovery Alliance v. Gutierrez (2008), for example, plaintiffs claimed that the 1999 Amendment to the Pacific Salmon Treaty Act of 1985 (PST 1985) allowed Canadian fisheries to harvest unreasonable rates of Environmental Species Act (ESA) protected salmonids and the U.S. government should not, therefore, renew the treaty. The court disagreed, noting that the PST 1985 was executed by an international organization, the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC), consisting of sixteen delegates from both Canada and the U.S. (PSC 2006), who set the catch limits for both countries annually “based on pre- and in-season estimates of abundance” (Salmon Spawning & Recovery Alliance v. Gutierrez (NOAA) 2008). While this case is about creating international catch agreements, not restricting hatcheries, it underlines the difficulties of managing straddling fish populations.

Furthermore, as discussed by Rand et al. (2012), while there is an abundance of information about wild-hatchery interactions for the Columbia River, there is very little information about the issue in other regions, especially in the Western Pacific. Until it is remedied, this lack of information described will only serve to exacerbate political tensions surrounding any attempts at international policy towards restricting hatchery output. Additionally, in the U.S. there is still a pressing question that needs to be settled before serious hatchery reform can take place: are hatchery- and wild-spawned salmon significantly different fish?

Classification Issues

Historically, both the courts and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have wavered back and forth on the question of including hatchery salmon in total salmon counts when making management decisions such as whether or not a species is to be afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (Kostow 2012). As an example, in Oregon Natural Resources Council v. Daley (NMFS) (1998), Magistrate Judge Janice M. Stewart determined that NMFS was erroneous in including hatchery counts to determine that the Evolutionarily Significant Unit (ESU) of Oregon Coast coho salmon was not threatened per the Endangered Species Act. Judge Stewart concluded that NMFS’s decision to not list the Oregon Coast coho salmon ESU was unlawful, went against its own code, and “placed the risk of failure squarely on the species.”

Three years later, in Alsea Valley Alliance v. Evans (NMFS) (2001), U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan reversed the court’s position regarding this ESU of coho salmon. Judge Hogan stated that by not including hatchery salmon in the counts when listing the coho ESU, NMFS was going against Congress’ limitation on “the Secretary’s ability to make listing distinctions among species below that of subspecies or a DPS [distinct population segment] of a species.”  Then in Alsea Valley Alliance v. Lautenbacher (2007) U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan ruled that the NMFS are within their rights to list hatchery- and wild-spawned fish separately. Finally, in Trout Unlimited v. Lohn (2009) the 9th Circuit Court decided that for ESA listing purposes, hatchery- and wild-spawned fish are not necessarily different. However, the court also noted that NMFS has legal authority when it comes to separating them out as necessary.

Currently for Oregon waters, Federal district courts hold that wild and hatchery salmon are not to be counted together (National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service 2011). In his opinion on the case, U.S. District Court Judge James Redden cited his previous finding that NOAA Fisheries’ decision to count hatchery-spawned salmon with naturally spawning fish when deciding whether or not to afford ESA protection a “biological opinion [that was] arbitrary and capricious.” He also wrote that since the “Federal Defendant’s [have a] history of abruptly changing course, abandoning previous BiOps, and failing to follow through with their commitments,” the courts would keep control themselves.  However, Judge Redden has since stepped down (Learn 2011).  Additionally, in making ESA listing decisions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) counts hatchery salmon with wild salmon for some ESUs throughout their range (USFWS 2013).

Because of the government and court’s tendency to waiver on the issue of classification, there will need to be a definitive answer from the scientific arena if we are to make clear strides in protecting wild salmon. To do this, the wild-spawned and hatchery-spawned salmon will likely have to be deemed separate subspecies or at least distinct population segments of the species (Alsea Valley Alliance v. Evans (NMFS) 2001). This would be difficult, since the definition of a species includes lack of naturally occurring crossbreeding and stray hatchery fish do breed naturally with wild fish (Bowlby & Gibson 2011; Christie et al. 2012; Kostow 2012; Rand et al. 2012). However, studies have shown quantifiable genetic differences between wild- and hatchery-spawned salmon (Fritts et al. 2007; Christie et al. 2011). Additionally, there is much evidence showing that stray hatchery-salmon who mate with wild-spawned salmon produce young that are less fit than naturally-spawned young of wild- to wild-lineage (Fritts et al. 2007; Theriault et al. 2011; Zhivotovsky et al. 2011). Perhaps this is evidence that they are not successfully crossbreeding and are, therefore, separate subspecies.

Policy Support for Limiting Hatcheries

If the U.S. government decides in favor of wild salmon, defining them as their own subspecies, then they will clearly receive the protections of the ESA in nearly every river of the Pacific Northwest and California as well as in the oceans. Additionally, there is potential for supportive litigation for limiting hatcheries in the numbers of smolt they release and where the hatcheries can be located. Limiting smolt releases could be supported both domestically and internationally based on such agreements as the “Clean Water Act,” UNCLOS, and court cases that have blocked hatchery construction. Existing international committees could either grow to include management and regulation of hatcheries or be used as a template for creating new international committees.

In the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (2002) (commonly known as the “Clean Water Act”), Article 502(6) includes “biological materials” in the definition of “pollutant.” If hatchery salmon are a distinct population segment from wild salmon, it could be argued that hatchery salmon are “biological materials” that are doing harm to endangered species. Additionally, it is not unheard of to treat living organisms as pollution; Congress set the precedent in creating the National Invasive Species Act of 1996 (Invasive Species Act; Courtney et al. 2008). Applied hand-in-hand with the Clean Water Act, the Invasive Species Act is implemented by the Coast Guard to control marine organisms in ballast water of ocean-going vessels.  These acts are limited in use in that they are domestic acts only and are not binding on any state other than the United States.

Similarly, the OSPAR Convention, which is signed by fifteen countries of Western Europe, is applicable only to the Northeast Atlantic, making it useful in Atlantic salmon conservation but less so in the Pacific region (OSPAR 2013). However, the second agreement of the OSPAR Convention, the Paris Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Land-based Sources of 1974 defines water pollution as anything introduced to the water by people that is harmful “to living resources and to marine ecosystems” (Raval 2013). Updates to the convention agreed upon in 1992 include the mandate that each governing state “strictly subject to … regulation … discharges to the maritime area, and releases into water or air which reach and may affect the maritime area” (OSPAR 2013). Clearly, hatchery salmon are released into the water by humans, reach and affect the oceans, and have been shown to be harmful to living resources.

Between the United States and Canada, Section 9 of the Pacific Salmon Treaty Act of 1985 states that in making salmon management decisions, the Pacific Salmon Commission shall “take into account the best scientific information available [that] result in measures necessary and appropriate for the conservation, management, utilization and development of the Pacific salmon resource” (PST 1985). While this treaty is concerned with harvest, it sets a precedent for making collaborative international management decisions with regards to salmon.

The United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows the broadest application of international law. While the United States has not yet ratified the treaty, U.S. courts acknowledge that it is customary international law and utilize it when making case decisions (Van Dyke 2008). The Precautionary Principle (1995) places conservation as the foundation of fisheries management and requires states to “avoid activities that present uncertain risks to the marine ecosystem” (Van Dyke 2008). In addition, it calls for considering an ecosystem’s carrying capacity in management decisions. Further, Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration, which is held as the defining document of precautionary management states:

“In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation” (Schiffman 2008).

In the United States, previous court cases set precedent for limiting installation of hatcheries. For example, in Wilderness Society v. US Fish & Wildlife Service (2003) the 9th Circuit Court ruled that USFWS could not put in a hatchery in a wildlife refuge because of potential harmful effects on wildlife, including wild salmon.

As stated by Holt et al. (2008), “there is currently no international governance structure with authority to unilaterally impose” international restrictions on hatchery production. However, there are international bodies that could expand their scope and jurisdiction or could be used as a template. In addition to North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC) touted by Holt et al. (2008) as a potential organization whose mandates could be reconfigured, the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC) could be refitted, expanded, or used as a template. The PSC is currently a governing body between the United States and Canada charged with overseeing the Pacific Salmon Treaty of 1985 (PSC 2013). While the PSC is currently only concerned with setting catch limits, it could be expanded to agreements on setting hatchery limits as well. Potentially, it could also grow to include commissioners from Russia and Japan. Alternatively and additionally, it could be used as a template for creating a new international commission for the Northern Pacific as well as an international commission for the Northern Atlantic.


If it is decided that there is no significant difference between hatchery and wild salmon, then the outlook for wild salmon is grim. We have put ourselves in a circular situation: the more hatcheries we build and smolts are released, the more they compete with wild-spawned fish, compounding the other stressors that are resulting in ever-lower counts of wild salmon, and the more we feel we need to build hatcheries and release more smolts to keep the total salmon numbers up. Perhaps it seems counterintuitive that in order to reap more benefits from the hatchery system we should limit what is sewn, but studies have shown that decreasing hatchery output has the potential for healthier smolts, juveniles with greater dominance and survival rates, and increased body size in returning adults (Brockman & Johnson 2010; Daly et al. 2010; Kostow 2012).


There is very little argument that hatchery salmon have a detrimental impact on wild salmon. However, the question of what is to be done about it raises a plethora of more complicated questions. How do we place limits on hatcheries when ostensibly they are breeding a failing natural resource? And, how do we accomplish this limit on an international level? With consideration for the previous questions the author makes the following recommendations: 1) Continue research on the question of wild and hatchery salmon as distinct population segments; 2) Keep wild and hatchery salmon populations separate to protect wild salmon genetics; 3) Continue with research to improve hatchery management practices; 4) Reduce hatchery output over time; 5) Train new fisheries biologists and managers to focus on holistic ecosystem management; 6) Recognize limits and changes in ocean and river carrying capacity; 7) Increase international discussion and information exchange on wild and hatchery salmon management practices and findings; 8) Utilize existing international commissions and treaties to impose restrictions on hatchery output; and 9) Increase public awareness and understanding of the issues facing wild salmon and the importance of salmon to the ecosystem.

The Precautionary Principle mandates that in the face of looming extinction, governing bodies not wait for scientific answers or consider economic outcomes before taking action to prevent the extinction. In many rivers, wild salmon are facing looming extinction. It is time to take action.


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