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Study shows Salmon Farms Lead to Smaller Eggs,
Adding to Concerns about Hatcheries

by Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Environmental News Network - March 14, 2003

GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- Salmon raised at a Canadian fish farm rapidly evolved to produce smaller eggs, according to a study that heightens doubts about whether hatchery-bred fish can be successfully released into the wild to rebuild endangered species.

Smaller eggs generally produce smaller young fish. And smaller fish do not compete for food in the wild as effectively as larger ones.

"It's sort of a cautionary tale for salmon enhancement efforts," said Daniel Heath, an expert on conservation genetics at the University of Windsor in Canada and author of the study in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

Researchers examined eggs produced by four generations of chinook salmon over the past 12 years at Yellow Island Aquaculture in British Columbia, Canada. They found that the fish produced more eggs, but the size of the eggs declined by 25 percent as wild fish interbred with hatchery fish.

Hatchery fish develop a genetic tendency to produce smaller eggs because in hatcheries, there is no competition for food the way there is in the wild. The lack of competition means smaller fish can more easily survive. As a result, the genetic trait for small eggs "just swept through the population," Heath said.

The study complicates the debate over how best to rebuild the 26 populations of Pacific salmon and steelhead that are classified as threatened or endangered species. Conservationists said the Canadian study shows that hatchery fish do not help to rebuild declining runs.

"Some researchers suggest that the only thing wild fish and hatchery fish have in common is water," said Bill Bakke of the Native Fish Society. "What usually comes out of that is some intermediate level of survival."

About 5 billion young fish are released from hatcheries each year around the Pacific Rim. Hatchery fish are not generally used to supplement wild populations but to provide fish for sport and commercial fisheries. The two groups do occasionally breed, however.

Abstract from Science Magazine reported on above (check the web or e-mail me if you would like a pdf version of the entire article):

Rapid Evolution of Egg Size in Captive Salmon Daniel D. Heath, John W. Heath, Colleen A. Bryden, Rachel M. Johnson, and Charles W. Fox Science 2003 March 14; 299: 1738-1740.

"Captive rearing and release programs designed to supplement populations of endangered or commercially exploited species can actually reduce population fitness because the animals are reared under low-mortality conditions that can favor maladaptive traits. Heath et al. (p. 1738) show that rearing chinook salmon under aquaculture conditions, in which juvenile mortality is intentionally minimized, reduces selection that naturally favors large eggs. The result is that hatchery supplementation of wild populations has substantial negative impacts on chinook salmon by driving nonadaptive traits (small egg size) into the fish populations. The evolutionary change to the maladaptive state occurred in under 20 years. "

Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Study shows Salmon Farms Lead to Smaller Eggs, Adding to Concerns about Hatcheries
Environmental News Network, March 14, 2003

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