Diminishing Returns – It is Time for Hatcheries to Change or Die

Story by Mark Hume

Every spring the hatchery on the Cowichan River releases about two million Chinook smolts. By fall, almost all of them are dead.

An ocean caught bright Chinook – Photo by Nick Didlick

The Cowichan, which runs through a verdant, green valley of forests and scattered vineyards on Vancouver Island in southern British Columbia, has long been designated an “index” stream, which means it is monitored as a way to keep track of what is happening with Chinook coast wide.

The Cowichan then is thought to be representative of a larger picture. If that’s the case, we are in big trouble on Canada’s Pacific coast, because year after year, less than one percent of Cowichan hatchery smolts live to return as adults.

Federally-funded hatcheries in B.C. release about 20 million Chinook annually, hoping to restore the once great runs of the biggest salmon in the Pacific.

Instead, as the staggering mortality rate in the Cowichan testifies, most of those fish die soon after hitting salt water.

No wonder the Chinook fishing is so poor in so many rivers.

In a 2011 paper published in Environmental Biology of Fishes, Richard Beamish, a top salmon scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, concludes that it is time to change the way things are done at the Cowichan hatchery.  And by implication, he is saying we need to overhaul DFO’s entire Chinook program.

To find out what was happening to the hatchery smolts at sea, Dr. Beamish and his colleagues netted fish in Cowichan Bay and throughout the surrounding Gulf Islands, farther out in Georgia Strait.

They found proof that the larger, apparently robust hatchery fish were dying off much faster than the smaller wild smolts.

It has long been an axiom in fish husbandry that the bigger the smolt, the better the chance of survival. But just the opposite picture emerged from Dr. Beamish’s data.

The smolts were all released in April and May, at eight months of age. By October almost all were dead, with only .08 per cent surviving.

By contrast the wild fish had a 3.6-per-cent survival rate.

Dr. Beamish did several analyses based on the numbers of fish they were recovering, but no matter how he added it up, the wild fish always out performed the hatchery fish.

“The wild survival is between six, nine and 24 times larger than the hatchery survival, depending on the [estimated] number of wild smolts,” he wrote.

Dr. Beamish was quick to say that his findings weren’t  a condemnation of the Cowichan facility, which is a partnership operation between DFO and the Cowichan Tribes, or of hatcheries in general.

But clearly the results point to a major problem – and the need for sweeping change.

“This conclusion is not a criticism of hatcheries; rather it is meant to identify the need to be more experimental,” he wrote.  “Continuing to do what we are doing and hoping that the next year will be better makes little sense.”

Dr. Beamish did not suggest any solutions.

But you don’t have to look far to find one.

Carol Schmidt in a Chinook raising tank

Just up Vancouver Island, near Port Alberni, Carol Schmitt has been growing healthy Chinook smolts for decades in the Omega Pacific Hatchery, a private facility that mostly provides stock for fish farms.

About 20 years ago Ms. Schmitt noticed that her Chinook smolts were dying within months of being moved from the freshwater tanks, to holding pens in the ocean.

She began to experiment, trying to grow hardier Chinooks, and over time was rewarded with soaring survival rates.

Her big change was to shift from releasing S-0 smolts, which were raised for less than one year, just like almost all the Chinook in government hatcheries,  to S-1’s, which were held for 17 months.

She grew her fish more slowly, in colder water, with variable temperatures and with less feed.

“Mimicking nature as best I could,” is how she describes it. The result was that her fish were much smaller when moved to salt water than the hatchery fish were – but they were tougher too.

Over the years she has grown about 10 million Chinook smolts, and Omega Pacific has carved out a reputation for growing strong, healthy fish that do not easily succumb to disease.

A decade or so ago she began lobbying DFO to try her technique in its hatcheries – that is, to start releasing S-1 Chinook smolts, instead of the 8-month old fat, weak, disease susceptible  S-0 fish they were churning out in ever increasing numbers.

She has made limited headway and has been allowed to release small numbers of S-1 Chinooks in a trio of Vancouver Island rivers. It will be a few years before the spawners return, but many people are arguing her approach should be tried on a big scale, and soon.

Certainly the Cowichan River is a candidate for change. And Carole said in an e-mail she would welcome the challenge if DFO and the Cowichan Tribes wanted her to try and re-boot that river.

She said she’d start by releasing 500,000 S-1’s – and predicted between 9,000 and 30,000 adults would return to spawn in five years.

A run of 1,000 Chinook is now considered good on the Cowichan, and some years there are so few fish that the hatchery struggles to collect enough brood stock.

Given the poor returns the hatchery has been getting, and given Dr. Beamish’s research, one has to wonder if they should be taking any wild fish. Left to spawn naturally, the fish would  produce better returns.

It is too soon to give up on hatcheries. But  in B.C. they need a massive rethink, not only when it comes to Chinook, but to Coho and steelhead as well.

Bob Hooton, a former provincial steelhead biologist [and a contributor to this site], said  steelhead programs in provincial hatcheries were abandoned because the smolts just weren’t surviving at high enough rates. Those steelhead, he said, were being raised pretty much the way the Chinook are now. So it is clearly time to go back to the drawing board, not just with Chinook, but also to try some experimental hatchery projects with steelhead too.

Maybe there are other approaches. The Nitinat hatchery, for example has been working at growing “more natural” coho. But when you look at Dr. Beamish’s study, and Carole Schmitt’s real world experience, the conclusion is obvious:  hatcheries should be growing fewer fish, holding them longer, and releasing them later in life.

Carole has proven that she knows how to grow healthy fish, and she learned by adapting and innovating. That’s what hatcheries need to do now.

In any big institution you can always find people who are willing to embrace change, and those who resist. It is time for the DFO resisters to step aside and  let  innovators, like Carole Schmitt, have a go. If they don’t, it won’t be long before politicians start to ask: are hatcheries even worth keeping? And with returns of less than one per cent, the answer has to be – no they are not.

So for hatcheries the time has come. Change or die.

The King of the Sea in the Pacific Northwest – Photo by Nick Didlick