Saturday, June 20, 2015

Hatchery Steelhead Versus Wild Steelhead

We have to change current management practices or our grand kids will not be able to fish for steelhead.Anyone who has caught a fresh wild steelhead knows the difference!
I should make clear that, when I talk about steelhead, I am talking about wild, naturally spawned and reared Oncorhynchus mykiss, not their distant hatchery outlaws. Wild steelhead are the genuine article; hatchery fish are not. The scientific literature is resplendent with the reasons why. Anglers know, or at least should know, from personal observation and experience that hatchery steelhead:
• Are not native, not wild, and do not behave as wild fish.
• Are much less responsive to a lure or fly.
• Enter the rivers over an extremely compressed period. Wild steelhead exhibit wide diversity in run and spawn timing and thus provide year-round angling opportunity with at least some wild steelhead entering rivers on virtually every tide.
• Migrate rapidly to their release location.
• Are known to be harmful to native populations.

Perhaps the most basic question concerns the future of the fish themselves. Without robust wild populations, we will not have a sport. Ask any experienced steelheader whether his fishing is better now than in the past. Invariably, he will note that his angling and angling options are, at best, faint echoes of what was available just a few decades ago. If this downward trend continues for even a short period beyond the present, then the prospects for steelhead and steelhead angling are-to put it mildly-less than hopeful.

What happens if, instead of joining with another wild fish that has passed through the same environmental lenses, this survivor meets and spawns with a hatchery steelhead? We should expect that their progeny would survive at a lower level because they lack the fitness of progeny from wild-wild pairings. Thirty years of field research by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife scientists focused exactly on this issue confirmed our expectation. The study compared the reproductive success of different pairing possibilities between wild and hatchery Kalama River steelhead:
• Native Kalama summer runs (both parents are native Kalama fish);
• Mixed parentage (hatchery male-native female or native male-hatchery female);
• Hatchery-only parentage (both parents hatchery-origin fish).

The findings? Only native-native pairings produced returning adult steelhead. The contributions of all other pairings to the returning adult populations, in the techno-speak of the study, could not be statistically distinguished from “zero.” In other words, the hatchery-hatchery, hatchery-wild, and wild-hatchery progeny were so ill-adapted-so unfit for the environmental challenges they faced over their lifetime-that none of them survived to adulthood. As predicted by Darwin, differences count in life.

The results of this careful, long-term scientific study make clear two essential facts. First, hatchery fish are not the same as nor are they an acceptable substitute for wild fish. Second, permitting hatchery fish to interact with wild fish has the effect of dramatically decreasing the productivity of the wild fish.

Pacific steelhead and salmon on the West coast are in crisis-not because we do not understand the causes for their declines. Instead, we know perfectly well what needs to be done but have instead insisted on following management practices that we know are harmful: excessive harvest, inadequate escapements, hatchery introductions, land use practices that are both unsustainable and detrimental to steelhead, and so on. We have further compounded the crisis by focusing our money and efforts on the stocks that are at the highest risk while largely ignoring other stocks less at risk, all the while continuing to apply management regimes known to be harmful. We also have examples of what will work if we have the courage to trust in the resilience of the fish themselves while providing for their basic requirements.

In short, the problem is not the fish. We and the manner in which we manage steelhead are the problem. Unless and until we change the basic management paradigms, we can be certain that the species will be functionally extinct in what is now their already greatly diminished range.
The above excerpt is from Dec Hogans new book "A Passion for Steelhead"

I have often heard from the ignorant masses "There is no true wild fish anymore" BS! That is wishful thinking by those who care nothing about this diminishing resource. The Bush administration would have us believe that there is no difference and what that amounts to is an attempt to water down the ESA so corporations can log and diminish wild fish habitat.
The ODFW is touting their "Wild Broodstock Program" It all sounds so good on paper but when it comes right down to it these progeny of wild fish are still hatchery fish.  Don't fool yourself into thinking anything else! They are still hatched and reared in a hatchery environment and imprinted with the same hatchery traits as those worthless out of basin mutants that have been dumped into the rivers for years.
I can honestly say after years of learning through trial and error that I would not lose one minutes sleep if all salmon and steelhead hatcheries in the state of Oregon closed down. This is a monster we created by building dams and plundering our pristine rivers for profit. We have gotten addicted to hatchery steelhead and like any addiction we cannot kick the habit! We feel like we are entitled or something and no matter what, we need to "bonk" a few satisfy our egos. Until we make catch and release a way of life, ingrained into our psyche it will never change. I could do without fishing the coastal rivers for a couple of years for the sake of wild steelhead....could you? I'm not just patting myself on the back here either! My education on this was a long time coming but I made it and if I convince just one other angler to make catch and release a part of his/her angling life then it will have been worth it.

The photo above is a wild Wilson River winter steelhead I caught in 2005. This fish was perfect in every way and there is no hatchery fish that can compare! Anyone of you that have caught a lot of both hatchery and wild steelhead know where I am coming from on this.


  1. Stew--I'm a David James Duncan fan and a reformed Hillsboronian. Never had the chance to fish steelhead in OR. Hope I will someday. Anyway, make sure you read the Brothers K this winter. Guaranteed to change your life.


  2. whoa...nice new look stew!

  3. Stew, Your comments are hatchery and wild steelhead are on the mark. Thanks for your passion and strong stand. If anglers do not take heed as you suggest, they will find that wild steelhead runs will disappear and with it the quality of the sport they hold dear. The hatcheries have not replaced what has been lost in numbers or in quality. Hatchery fish cannot replace wild fish in quality and they contribute to the degradation of the wild runs. To change this, anglers have to take a stand and your blog shows how important it is. Bakke

  4. Thanks for the comments Bill. I have followed the whole sorry saga of the broodstock program on the north coast and have alienated some people in the process. The point is no matter what is said they are still hatchery fish! Still reared in concrete holding ponds and still detrimental to wild fish.
    Thanks go you you for your tireless work to save our wild salmonids.