OPINION: It's time for a difficult discussion about Alaska's salmon hatcheries

On a recent snowy day in Palmer, I presented a keynote lecture at the Mat-Su Salmon Science and Conservation Symposium, sharing some modest advice for managers. There I discussed some of the “big ideas” that have shaped modern salmon conservation science — but come question time, the focus narrowed to just one topic: salmon hatcheries.

As an integral thread in the fabric of Alaska’s salmon fisheries, hatcheries are a deserving source of substantial interest and examination. Unfortunately, far too often, discussions surrounding hatcheries have devolved into an “Us vs. Them” team-based microcosm of the politically polarized world in which we find ourselves. In simplest terms, teams have aligned themselves at opposing poles along a belief system continuum.

At one end, a team believes that hatchery fish can be added on top of wild fish production without any detrimental impacts to wild fish or ecosystems. At the other end, the team believes that hatchery fish negatively affect wild fish production and inevitably replace wild fish. I use the terms “belief” and “believe” here intentionally. The beliefs I hold as a scientist are rooted in the preponderance of vetted, peer-reviewed evidence that emerges from the scientific process. As the weight of evidence changes on a topic, so to have my beliefs.

Changing beliefs is not easy for me, nor is it easy for others. At best, changing beliefs can be deeply uncomfortable and disorienting, at worst it can be an existential threat to one’s identity and team affiliation. I believe today that the views held by those on the opposing sides of the hatchery debate are not entirely wrong, but also not entirely complete.

Hatcheries in Alaska have not completely replaced wild salmon. But they have also not yielded as much benefit to Alaskans as we have been led to believe — hatcheries have detrimentally affected wild salmon productivity and are reshaping ecosystems in unpredictable ways. I believe hatcheries are not dichotomous; they are not good or bad, right or wrong, but are tools that have beneficial purposes for specific objectives. But like any tool there are inherent risks in its use.

In a world where it feels that so many of the challenges facing salmon and salmon-dependent people are beyond our control, hatcheries are one of the few levers we can actually pull. We have control over when, where, and how many salmon are released from hatcheries. Given the scientific evidence, it is reasonable for fishery groups or policy makers to consider reducing numbers of hatchery releases. It is equally reasonable to consider what might be lost or gained — and by whom — in any scenario of reduced hatchery production.

The time has come for us to ask and to quantify what the trade-offs might be if we lower hatchery production. Here, science can guide us. This work begins with having the difficult, but honest, discussion about hatcheries’ inherent risks and rewards. These conversations will be difficult and likely impossible to fully separate from emotions given that all of us are living, breathing, and feeling humans.


Dialogues about hatcheries must be rooted in humility, where all participants must accept that the beliefs they hold, and perhaps hold to tightly, might be — at least in part — incorrect. But unless we collectively acknowledge that we might be wrong when it comes to Alaska hatcheries there will be no true dialogue, only continued division and deadlock.

Peter Westley is a lifelong Alaskan. Some of his fondest childhood memories are sportfishing in Lake Bay near the Wally Noerenberg hatchery in Prince William Sound. He holds the Wakefield Chair of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in the Department of Fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he and his students conduct research with the goal of sustaining the relationships between salmon, people, and place. He has authored or co-authored more than 60 peer-reviewed publications on salmon ecology and evolution, including extensive work on hatchery and wild salmon interactions.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.