THIRTY YEARS OF RESEACH TELLS A STORY:
As an advocate for wild salmonid conservation and protection I rely on research to make may case, for I rely on facts. Getting ahead of the facts can be temping in the heat of a debate but should never be practiced. Consequently, it takes years of following the research papers as they are published to develop a factual case upon which to base a conclusion.
With regard to the fitness divergence between hatchery and wild steelhead, the research by Reginald Reisnbichler and Jack McInyre in 1978 initiated the inquiry into a remarkable difference between what can only be said are two forms of the same species: the domesticated and the wild forms.
Many scientific papers have been published since that initial work helping to define the various attributes of these two forms of fish and their performance in natural streams. In 2008 and 2009 research was published by Araki et al about hatchery steelhead derived from wild parents and compared to the performance in nature with wild steelhead. This research concluded that hatchery steelhead survival was less than that of wild steelhead in the first generation, and that this divergent performance persisted through the second generation in natural spawning and rearing conditions.
Hatchery culture changed the hatchery fish genetically in the first generation of hatchery culture and natural selection did not remove the effect of artificial propagation.
After 31 years of research on the question of hatchery and wild steelhead divergence, a conclusion can be made: hatchery culture degrades the fitness and survival of steelhead. This research also concludes that the interbreeding between hatchery and wild steelhead in streams reduces the fitness of wild steelhead, degrading their natural productivity. Even though Reisenbichler’s research defined a future path of inquiry, it took 31 years to determine conclusively that hatchery culture creates a domesticated animal in the first generation, reducing its fitness and acting as a degrading influence on wild populations in nature.
The fish management agencies resisted evaluating the efficacy of hatcheries for over one hundred years, for they did not have to prove they worked to get public funding from state and federal governments. Belief in hatcheries is all that is required and the fish agencies believed. Having no factual information has not been important to justify funding. A belief doesn’t require accountability. The consequences have been severe, if one counts the number of wild populations that have gone extinct and those listed as endangered species. The fact that salmonids today are just 5% of historic abundance should be enough to cause a shift in management policy.
It will take at least another ten years for the fish management agencies to adjust their policies and procedures to improve the conservation of wild steelhead by changing how hatcheries are used. This shift in institutional commitment takes a long time, too long given the scientific evidence, but fish management is not designed to be responsive to science. It takes a strong, long-term public advocacy to force changes in fish management policy. In the meantime, there will be considerable damage to what remains of our wild steelhead, for wild fish and their habitat are considered irrelevant to the mission of fish management agencies.