May 26, 2020

Hatcheries in Lieu of Habitat: A Dubious Restoration Strategy for the Delta Smelt

Paul Stanton Kibel

Pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), in October 2019 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) issued a new Biological Opinion (BiOp) for joint operations of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project (2019 USFWS BiOp). The Central Valley Project is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), and the State Water Project is operated by the California Department of Water Resources, both divert freshwater from the Sacramento River and San Joaquin River watersheds.

The 2019 USFWS BiOp found that anticipated water project operations would not jeopardize the survival of the endangered delta smelt, a fish species dependent on low-salinity conditions. The “no jeopardy” determination in the 2019 USFWS BiOp contrasted with the previous 2008 USFWS BiOp, which found that anticipated water project operations would likely push the endangered delta smelt into extinction due to elevated salinity levels.

In comparing the 2008 USFWS BiOp to the 2019 USFWS BiOp, a key difference is that the 2019 USFWS BiOp proposed reliance on delta smelt hatcheries to help supplement dwindling wild delta smelt stocks while the 2008 USFWS BiOp did not. This shift to greater reliance on hatcheries to maintain delta smelt is revealed in the following text in the 2019 USFWS BiOp under the heading Cultured Smelt Production from Fish Conservation and Culture Laboratory (FCCL):

[T]he delta smelt faces a high risk of continued declines if the population is not supplemented. Reclamation proposes to fund a two-phase process that would lead to annual supplementation of the wild delta smelt population with propagated fish within 3-5 years from issuance of the biological opinion… Supplementation through the FCCL will increase the likelihood that the population of delta smelt will be sustained in the wild.

For those of us that have studied the experience with reliance on hatcheries to try to maintain west coast salmon populations, the 2019 USFWS BiOp’s proposal to refocus delta smelt conservation efforts on hatchery production has an eerily familiar ring. The familiar ring is what can be called the “replacement assumption”—the premise that serious efforts to maintain the natural habitat wild fisheries require to survive are not needed because the wild fish can be replaced with fish artificially propagated in hatcheries.

Research and experience suggest, however, that before embarking on the hatchery-reliant conservation strategy for delta smelt proposed in the 2019 USFWS BiOp, we would be wise to first more carefully study the results of the previous hatchery-reliant strategy for west coast salmon.

Hatcheries and West Coast Salmon

In the United States, many of the larger on-stream dams on the west coast were built in the period from 1930 to 1970. At the time these dams were built, the strategy to mitigate the anticipated adverse impacts of dams on salmon stocks was to construct and operate salmon hatcheries below the dams. Under this strategy, the hatcheries would release large volumes of juvenile salmon to replace wild salmon stocks lost due to the dams.

In his 1999 book Salmon Without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis, fisheries biologist James Lichatowich explains:

Salmon managers accepted the myth that controlling salmon production in hatcheries would ultimately lead to increased productivity. Despite the best of intentions, these hard-working people produced disaster because their efforts were based on false assumptions.

In Salmon Without Rivers, Lichatowich continues:

Today, as proof of their success, hatchery advocates note that artificially propagated salmon make up 80 percent or more of the total number of salmon in the Columbia [River Basin], but they fail to mention that the total run has crashed to less than 5 percent of its historical abundance. Measuring success by the percentage of hatchery fish in a shrinking production base was not only scientifically invalid but also insidiously enhanced the illusion of hatchery success. At the same time the percentage of hatchery fish increased, hatcheries were contributing to the decline of wild salmon.

Lichatowich further observes:

One of the most troubling consequence of this flawed vision was that it diverted salmon managers’ attention from the root cause of the salmon’s decline. As a result, significant problems such as habitat destruction . . . were consistently ignored. Agency budgets and staff energy were devoted to artificial propagation instead of habitat protection.

The analysis and conclusions of Lichatowich have been confirmed and echoed by other studies that have assessed the effect of salmon hatcheries on wild salmon stocks and overall salmon abundancy. For example, in 2014 the Hatchery Scientific Review Group submitted a report to the U.S. Congress titled On the Science of Hatcheries. In the report, the Hatcheries Scientific Review Group found:

The traditional policy of replacing wild populations with hatchery fish is not consistent with today’s conservation goals, environmental values, and scientific theories. Hatcheries cannot replace lost fish habitat and the natural populations that rely on it. It is now clear that the widespread use of hatchery programs has actually contributed to the overall decline of wild populations.

Notwithstanding the documented failure of hatchery-reliant management for west coast salmon, the 2019 USFWS BiOp now proposes hatchery-reliant management for the delta smelt.

Findings of Fishery Biologists at FCCL Delta Smelt Hatchery

In 2018, fishery biologists working at the FCCL published a peer-reviewed scientific paper indicating that the release of hatchery delta smelt into the wild could adversely impact and actually reduce wild delta smelt populations. In their 2018 article, published in the Journal of Heredity, these FCCL fishery biologists reported:

Selective pressures at the FCCL and in the wild differ considerably: the FCCL is a tightly controlled, predator-free environment with ad libidum food availability, whereas the Delta is an estuary with tidal changes in turbidity and temperature, and with larger seasonal and annual changes in temperature and salinity. Adaptation to captivity could cause rapid phenotypic and genetic divergence between wild and hatchery stocks . . . [H]atcheries might induce epigenetic reprogramming, which may lower the fitness of hatchery-origin fish in the wild.

. . . .

[I]t is questionable whether the release of [hatchery] fish would result in an overall benefit to the wild delta smelt population given that selection pressures between the field and hatchery differ substantially . . . To date, there is no research on survival of FCCL-produced delta smelt in the wild because no fish have been released, as the release of FCCL delta smelt is not permitted.

The findings by FCCL fishery biologists are difficult if not impossible to reconcile with the claims in the 2019 USFWS BiOp. The FCCL fishery biologists confirm that genetic adaptations among delta smelt raised in the FCCL may lower the survival of such hatchery fish in the wild, and that the crossing of hatchery delta smelt and wild delta smelt may reduce the overall populations of delta smelt in the wild. The 2018 article by the FCCL fishery biologists also confirms that at present there is no research on how FCCL-produced delta smelt survive in the wild, because the release of such FCCL delta smelt into the wild is not now allowed. More to the point, the article  suggests that there is in fact no data or research to support the claims in the 2019 USFWS BiOp that “supplementation through the FCCL will increase the likelihood that the population of delta smelt will be sustained in the wild.”

Hatcheries and 2019 No Jeopardy Determination

As the 2018 article reveals, current science does not support the claim that the release of FCCL-produced delta smelt into the wild would supplement wild delta smelt stocks. The 2019 USFWS BiOp states that USFWS will work with partners “to determine how a successful reintroduction program can be developed” but the findings of the FCCL biologists indicate that there may be no safe way to introduce hatchery delta smelt into the wild. This means that it is unlikely such reintroduction will in fact occur.

This means that the FCCL will likely continue to operate as a closed captive breeding facility. Such a closed captive breeding facility may serve an independent scientific research purpose, but they will not contribute to sustaining or restoring delta smelt populations in the wild as the 2019 USFWS BiOp claims. Rather, such a closed captive breeding facility will simply be a laboratory to preserve specimens of a delta smelt population that we allowed to go extinct by our failing to maintain the habitat conditions the species needed.

This approach to dealing with endangered species—by preserving species in laboratories rather than maintaining the habitat such species need to survive—is antithetical to the basic structure and purpose of the ESA. More specifically, the ESA provides for the designation and protection of “critical habitat” to maintain and restore all listed species. The focus on “critical habitat” evidences that the ESA is concerned first and foremost with preserving species in the wild. The concept of “critical habitat” becomes nonsensical when applied to a species that only exists in a laboratory.

In sum, there are two key questions to keep in mind in evaluating the credibility and coherence of the hatchery-dependent strategy for delta smelt.

First, if reliance on hatcheries to replace and supplement wild stocks has proven such a failure in regard to west coast salmon, why is the 2019 USFWS BiOp justified in its claims that such hatcheries will be effective in replacing and supplementing wild delta smelt stocks?

Second, if the focus of the ESA is on maintaining habitat conditions for species to survive in the wild rather than preserving species in laboratories, and if the FCCL fishery biologists are correct that there is little chance hatchery delta smelt will ever be released into the wild, then how do the hatchery-focused components of the 2019 USFWS BiOp support the no jeopardy determination in regard to the impacts of water project operations on the delta smelt?

    Paul Stanton Kibel


    Paul Stanton Kibel teaches environmental and water law at Golden Gate University School of Law, where he directs the GGU Center on Urban Environmental Law (CUEL), and is visiting professor in Water Law at UC Berkeley School of Law. His forthcoming book Riverflow: The Right to Keep Water Instream will be published by Cambridge University Press in late 2020. An expanded version of this article was previously published in early 2020 in Ecology Law Currents as Salmon Lessons for the Delta Smelt: Unjustified Reliance on Hatcheries in the October 2019 USWFS Biological Opinion.