Hatchery and fishery reform policy and scientific review

Most salmon and steelhead fisheries in Washington are subsidized by hatcheries. Historically, hatcheries operated with a primary objective of producing fish for harvest by anglers. But in the past several decades, hatcheries have increasingly been seen as a tool to help conserve natural populations of salmon and steelhead around the state.

Hatchery reform -- the systematic, scientific redesign of hatchery programs to reduce risk to wild populations while supporting sustainable fisheries -- is just one part of a greater effort targeted at recovering troubled salmon stocks throughout Washington. Hatchery reform and production is one element of WDFW’s comprehensive salmon and steelhead recovery efforts, alongside habitat protection and restoration, harvest management, predator management, and removing barriers to fish passage.

On June 15, 2018, the Fish and Wild Commission (FWC) directed the agency to review and update its Hatchery and Fishery Reform Policy (C-3619). The policy was originally adopted in November 2009 to advance the conservation and recovery of wild salmon and steelhead by promoting and guiding the implementation of hatchery reform.

The FWC directed the agency to initiate a review of all sections and aspects of the policy, including:

  • Performance evaluation of the policy since adoption;
  • Update of the science; and
  • Possible policy revisions.

During this review period, the FWC directed the agency to leave the policy in effect except for policy guidelines 1, 2, and 3, which were to be suspended for salmon species other than steelhead. Policy guidelines 1, 2, and 3 address hatchery reform scientific standards, broodstock management guidance, and development of watershed scale hatchery management plans, respectively.

The purpose of suspending policy guidelines 1, 2, and 3 for salmon species other than steelhead was to allow for some flexibility in hatchery production for Southern Resident Killer Whales while still providing adequate protection of wild fish.

Questions? Contact Laurie Peterson, fish science division manager, at laurie.peterson@dfw.wa.gov.

Project elements

The guidance by the FWC resulted in the following primary project elements:

  • Policy review (Commission assignment)
    • Science review document, including emerging science (led by WDFW; facilitated by Washington State Academy of Sciences)
    • Policy performance evaluation document (led by WDFW)
    • Joint co-manager hatchery benefits document (led by tribal co-managers)
  • Engage tribal co-managers in policy development
  • Public and partner outreach and engagement
  • Commission consideration of final reports and policy recommendations

Each of these efforts will be summarized and combined into a recommendations document which will be presented to the FWC for possible hatchery and fishery reform policy revisions.  Below is a summary of the above listed project elements.

Science review and update

The purpose of this effort was to review and update the science on hatchery reform. To ensure an independent scientific review process, the agency worked closely with the Washington State Academy of Sciences (WSAS).  WDFW science staff were the lead authors on the report while WSAS guided the review. The WSAS guidance included a review of the early drafts, facilitation of a science workshop, and an independent third party peer-review of the final products.

Washington State Academy of Sciences products

WDFW product

Policy performance evaluation

To ensure a thorough policy evaluation, the agency is reviewing all aspects of the Hatchery and Fishery Reform Policy (C-3619) and will report back to the FWC on the performance of the policy since its adoption in 2009. This review includes an evaluation of how well the agency implemented each of the 11 policy guidelines.

Co-manager hatchery benefits document

The intent of this document is for the tribal co-managers to examine the cultural and socio-ecological role of hatcheries, tribal legal considerations, and the ecosystem services provided by hatcheries.

Stakeholder outreach and engagement

To ensure a transparent public process and agency to tribe engagement, WDFW has initiated two separate but parallel processes. One will involve direct outreach to individual tribes, and will be led by WDFW. The other outreach process will target interested stakeholders and partners and will be led by a consultant working closely with WDFW.

Open public meetings

April 11, 2019,  1-3:30 p.m.
South Puget Sound Community College, Lacey.


To ensure the information is summarized and has adequate time for public comments for a FWC decision, WDFW staff will summarize the key findings from the project elements described above into a single recommendations document for the FWC.  Recommendations and any policy revisions will be presented to the FWC and will be subject to public comments over the course of several months following the delivery of the work products.

General timeline

Summer and Fall 2018: Early engagement with partners and stakeholders following the FWC decision to review the policy. This involved agency responses to partners, project scoping and planning, and initiation of the working groups. 

Winter through Fall 2019: Complete policy evaluation, complete science review, continued tribal engagement, and stakeholder outreach. This will involve interviews, meetings, and workshops necessary to ensure there is a robust public and tribal engagement process alongside the working groups.

Winter 2019-20 through Fall 2020: Fish & Wildlife Commission presentations and public comments periods. This will involve the FWC processes to hear from WDFW staff, review the products, and move towards a decision to revise the policy. 

Key Commission Meeting Dates

  • Feb 6th, 2020 (Olympia) 8 a.m.-12 p.m.: FWC & WDFW Science Review Workshop - The Commission will participate in a 4 hour workshop that includes senior scientists from WDFW Fish Program Science Division.  These scientists will present key findings form their report "A review of hatchery reform science in Washington State."  The report addresses the benefits of hatcheries, and describes associated fishery, ecological, and genetic risks.  The report provides an update on the scientific elements of hatchery reform with a focus on those elements that have emerged since the Commissions policy (C-3619) was adopted in 2009.
  • March 12th, 2020 (Tri-Cities) 8 a.m. - 12 p.m.: FWC & WDFW Policy Evaluation Workshop - The Commission will participate in a workshop that includes senior scientists from WDFW Fish Program Science and Hatchery Division.  These scientists will present the results of the policy evaluation and discuss the key findings with the Commission. 

Frequently asked questions

What is hatchery reform?

Hatchery reform aims to systematically and scientifically redesign hatchery programs to help protect wild salmon and steelhead, through actions that reduce risk to wild populations, while supporting sustainable fisheries.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is guided in its hatchery reform efforts by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Hatchery and Fishery Reform Policy, originally approved in 2009. The Commission ordered a review of this policy in 2018.

What are some examples of hatchery reform actions?

Hatchery reform affects many parts of hatchery operations and management strategies. Some key elements include:

  • Program size, the number of juvenile fish released from hatcheries, which in turn affects the number of returning adult hatchery-origin fish.
  • Managing broodstock to mitigate for the potential negative effects of hatchery fish on wild salmon and steelhead populations. While such broodstock management is multifaceted, one primary component is the effort to manage the number of hatchery-origin fish spawning in the wild and the number of natural-origin fish being collected for broodstock in hatcheries.
  • Rearing strategies, including the type of rearing structure, rearing density, water source, and the size-at-age of fish when they are released.
  • Release strategies, including concentrating hatchery releases in non-native locations where no historic population was present, using acclimation ponds to improve survival and homing of hatchery fish, or timing hatchery releases with a goal of reducing negative interactions with natural populations.
  • Adaptive management informed by extensive monitoring of key demographic metrics.

Why does WDFW need to reform both salmon hatchery and fishery management?

WDFW works to implement the best available science in all of its management efforts. Comprehensive salmon recovery efforts have intensified in recent years, focused on hatchery and harvest management, habitat restoration, removing barriers to fish passage, and reducing predation on fish populations.

WDFW has been implementing hatchery reform for decades, with the Commission’s Hatchery and Fishery Reform Policy formally adopted in 2009. While we have been implementing these reforms, wild Chinook populations have continued to decline throughout the state, in part, because recovery actions have not been effective or of sufficient magnitude to reverse the negative trend in salmon abundance.  That continued decline impacts our ability to recover those populations and provide fishing opportunities, and this latest review of hatchery and fishery reform allows the department to update its management with a decade of experience and additional science that will inform future reform actions.

We continue to examine hatcheries, harvest, and habitat to see how we can continue to improve our practices toward supporting wild Chinook recovery.

Why did the Fish and Wildlife Commission suspend only part of the policy?

The first three guidelines of the Hatchery and Fishery Reform Policy were suspended in June 2018 in order to allow WDFW to undertake its policy review while also offering flexibility to adapt hatchery production in an effort to help the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population, which relies on Chinook salmon as a primary food source.

I thought we can only harvest hatchery fish, so why do we need fishery reform?

Though many fisheries in Washington are mark-selective, meaning only hatchery fish with a clipped adipose fin can be retained depending on the run and location, those fisheries can still have impacts on troubled wild populations.

Even catch-and-release fisheries still have mortality rates associated with them, and these impacts are used to guide fisheries targeted at healthy hatchery and wild populations. In many cases, fisheries are curtailed because of incidental, unintended impacts to weak natural populations, not because of impacts to the more abundant hatchery populations targeted by fisheries.

The goal of fishery reform is to offer the best possible fishing opportunities within those constraints, while also achieving conservation goals. In some cases, a recreational fishery may be directly linked to a hatchery program. So, if a hatchery programs undergoes changes as a result of a hatchery reform action it is reasonable to expect the fishery must also change.    

What is the timeline for updating the hatchery reform policy as a result of this review process?

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission hopes to make a decision on any language changes to Policy C-3619 at its meeting in October 2020, with additional briefings and updates planned for upcoming meetings in spring and summer. See the timeline above for past and future actions, or check the Commission website for meeting dates and agendas.

A Review of Hatchery Reform Science in Washington State: Key takeaways

Hatchery management inherently represents a tradeoff between benefits and risks; hatchery reform is intended to balance that tradeoff. A Review of Hatchery Reform Science in Washington State examines those benefits and risks, and the actions available to hatchery managers as risk reduction measures.  The report focuses on new scientific information available in the last ten years since WDFW’s Hatchery and Fishery Reform Policy (C-3619) was adopted in 2009, towards the goal of helping inform whether a revision to the policy is warranted. 

The following are some of the key conclusions from the report.

  • Hatchery reform is just one of several issues requiring thoughtful planning and aggressive implementation to achieve meaningful recovery of salmon populations in Washington.
  • In a conservation setting, hatcheries have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to help prevent extinction of unique populations and increase the abundance of naturally spawning hatchery-origin fish. However, transitioning to entirely self-sustaining natural production appears to be a major obstacle, and the immediate conservation benefit of naturally spawning hatchery-origin fish must be weighed against longer-term genetic risks.
  • The risks of hatcheries have received much more attention in scientific literature than hatchery benefits. This is especially true of the genetic risks to wild fish populations as a result of hatcheries – particularly domestication (loss of fitness) and reduced genetic diversity among and within populations.
    • When spawning naturally, hatchery-origin fish tend to produce fewer offspring than natural-origin fish. However, unequivocal, empirical evidence that the lower fitness of hatchery-origin fish is inherited by genetic mechanisms remains rare, due in part to the very small number of multigenerational studies capable of isolating genetic effects on fitness.
    • Hatcheries and nature represent two different selection environments.  Therefore, understanding and controlling gene flow between the hatchery and natural spawning grounds are critical components of balancing risks and benefits. Depending on the situation, high geneflow from hatchery to natural populations in the past and present could lead to large-magnitude fitness loss.
  • The ecological risks of hatcheries – including competition for resources between hatchery- and natural-origin fish, and altered predation upon salmon by other species – are poorly understood and rarely evaluated at the population or regional scale. It is possible that factors such as competition in shared rearing environments or reductions in life history diversity have significantly impacted the performance of natural salmon populations and other species in regional ecosystems such as Puget Sound or the Columbia River estuary.
  • Research has demonstrated that changes to hatchery management can reduce genetic and ecological risks, with examples predominantly from smaller scale conservation-oriented hatchery programs. However, most of WDFW’s hatchery programs and hatchery releases are associated with larger-scale, production-oriented programs intended to provide harvest opportunities. In general, a focus on maximizing abundance and efficiency prevents widespread implementation of risk-reduction measures.
  • Separating hatchery management effects from other factors affecting population performance remains difficult due to a lack of empirical data from large-scale, replicated experiments. Regardless, greater investment in the analysis, synthesis and reporting of existing monitoring data would improve hatchery adaptive management.

Overall, WDFW’s review supports the fundamental concepts and approach of hatchery reform, but also identifies knowledge gaps and challenges to coordinated, robust implementation of scientific principles at a statewide scale. In order to advance hatchery reform as a comprehensive program for developing scientifically defensible hatchery programs, these issues warrant dedicated, programmatic initiatives.