U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Emblem U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Salmon of the West
What is a salmon?
Why are salmon in trouble?
Who is in charge?
Voices of the West
Wild/Hatchery: a difference?
Why you should care
What is the FWS doing?
What you can do

What is the difference between wild and hatchery salmon?

Chum Salmon in native habitatHatcheries provide a bit of certainty in an uncertain world. Like streams, hatcheries provide the necessary conditions for young salmon to live, including reliable food, water, space, and shelter. As an indicator of how important hatcheries have become to sustaining fish populations in the northwest, look at the Columbia Basin. Currently, 80% of the approximately one million returning adult Columbia River salmon and steelhead are hatchery-reared. The remaining 20% are naturally produced in streams. Can hatcheries ensure that all salmon do not go extinct in our uncertain world? Or are hatchery fish competing against wild fish for space in the rivers? If only 200,000 truly wild Columbia River salmon remain, is it enough? Are the hatchery and wild fish genetically different? If so, are they significantly different? Does it matter? If a hatchery fish spawns with a wild fish, does it dilute the gene pool?

While originally derived from wild populations, years of culturing under artificial conditions have resulted in adaptations and changes to hatchery reared fish. For example, hatchery fish rely on hand-feeding, where wild fish must hunt for food. Hatcheries provide artificial shelter for fish versus the natural shelter found in a stream. Compared to hatchery fish, wild fish are usually more successful at surviving the rigors of the natural environment long enough to reproduce. Fewer than 1% of the smolts released from the hatchery return home to spawn. Those hatchery fish that do return have survived the same perils as wild fish since the majority of their lives are spent adapting to and surviving in the wild.

How are we addressing these questions and issues? We are working diligently to implement new protocols and methods to improve “old” hatchery practices and rear a more “wild” like fish. With our various federal, state, tribal, and public partners we are conducting cooperative research to address these issues. We are:

  • identifying and using locally adapted fish as broodstock to optimize genetic fitness, reduce potential negative genetic or ecological interactions of hatchery fish with their wild counterparts and increase performance and survival once they are released into the wild;
  • using raceways covers, automatic fish feeders, colored raceways, and underwater structure to simulate a the natural environment thereby producing a hatchery fish that is more in tune with natural stream conditions and hopefully a fish that reacts more like a wild fish in its behavior;
  • developing new methods to monitor fish and then implementing these techniques to study how hatchery and wild fish interaction in the wild to better assess the potential for negative impacts;
  • creating new techniques and methodologies to hold remnant populations in hatcheries until their habitat can be recovered and they can be returned to the wild
  • monitoring habitat quality for all fish in our streams and rivers.

These are just a few of the activities conducted by our biologists, resulting in genetically appropriate fish with increased survival for release into our waterways.

Hatchery fish provides everyone with the opportunity to enjoy this aquatic resource. This availability of hatchery fish ensures that everyone with a vested interest (sport, commercial, and tribal fishers, and conservationists) can approach management discussions about restoring our wild fish in a positive, helpful way - knowing that both our wild and hatchery fishery resources are being maintained to the best of our abilities.



Pacific Region Home | USFWS Home Page