Hatchery Fish


This month’s episode has been brewing since the conception of the Anchored podcast in 2014. Over the last six years, we’ve discussed various concerns about the impact of hatchery fish in wild systems. Every time such an episode airs, it stimulates debate between “pro-hatchery” and “anti-hatchery” anglers. For years I’ve been asking hatchery advocates to give me the name of someone they wanted to hear from. The name they gave me was biologist Ian Courter. 

I’d arranged to meet with Ian, as well as the Wild Fish Conservancy’s Dr. Nick Gayeski and past Anchored guest and biologist John McMillan earlier this year. Flights were booked and conference rooms scheduled before Covid inevitably pushed this episode back. While we couldn’t get Nick on the call, John and Ian agreed to sit down for the first time to publicly share their viewpoints. 

Outline of This Episode

  • [4:00] What is a hatchery fish?
  • [8:50] Why do people take such an extreme stance on this issue?
  • [28:14] What would Nick Gayeski say about the issue?
  • [30:439] How much money do hatchery fish cost?
  • [35:13] Scientists have done a poor job of studying the different ways that hatcheries are managed
  • [40:34] Lack of differing life histories affects the hatchery fish population
  • [53:45] What about the Montana example?
  • [1:04:45] We need big experiments to collect data
  • [1:12:30] When hatcheries are used for a few years they can jumpstart a fishery
  • [1:24:18] What can be done to solve these problems?

What is a hatchery fish?

A hatchery fish is a fish that spends a portion of its life, usually its juvenile stage, in a captive environment. The role of hatcheries was created to eliminate the environmental factors that cause mortality early on in a fish’s life. It is important to note the reason that hatcheries were created. Hatcheries were created to offset the loss or degradation of natural fish habitats which have been modified by dams and other manmade environmental factors. Hatcheries were designed to offset the habitat loss or degradation caused by man. 

Why do people take such an extreme stance on the issue of fish hatcheries?

Anglers tend to have strong views about fish hatcheries on one side or the other, but scientists generally stand somewhere in the middle. Ian feels that the strong opinions felt by anglers are due to their differing reasons for fishing. Someone who is going fishing to stock their freezer may feel differently about hatcheries than an angler who fishes to experience the solitude that nature provides. He feels that these contrasting values are what drive people’s perspectives on fish hatcheries. He thinks that the science behind the hatcheries themselves doesn’t play a huge role in people’s perspective. 

John offers a different viewpoint. He feels that the people who are opposed to hatcheries are reflecting the scientific findings that back their case. While those same people probably cannot point to a specific study, nor have they read all of the scientific articles about hatcheries, they feel that there is a scientific body of evidence that points to the negative impact of hatcheries. 

Hatchery fish survive at lower rates than wild fish

There is the viewpoint that if you exterminate hatchery fish then the wild fish population will suddenly come back. However, that is not scientifically accurate. Rather, it is a message that some advocacy groups have promoted. One argument against hatcheries is that the hatchery fish survive at lower rates than wild fish. While this may be true, scientists have done a poor job of differentiating the effects of the hatcheries themselves. 

The way the hatcheries are managed has an impact on the survival of the fish and also on the fisheries. Rather than just looking at the effects of the hatcheries scientists should be measuring the magnitude of the effects so that industries can make informed, value-based decisions. Ian and John have slightly differing opinions on this. Listen in to hear what they have to say. 

Large scale experiments are needed

No one can argue that the issue of fish hatcheries is a complex one. Although the hatchery fish do not survive as well, it doesn’t mean that they don’t survive at all. There have been several examples that show that sometimes introducing hatchery fish into a fishery has actually jumpstarted that fishery’s population. To further understand how hatcheries affect wild populations there needs to be large scale studies done. John and Ian provide a fascinating discussion as well as ideas on what people can do to become more informed about fish hatcheries.

Resources mentioned in this episode

Connect with Ian Courter and John McMillan

Connect With Anchored