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Managed Metapopulations: Do Salmon Hatchery ‘Sources’ Lead to In-River ‘Sinks’ in Conservation?


Maintaining viable populations of salmon in the wild is a primary goal for many conservation and recovery programs. The frequency and extent of connectivity among natal sources defines the demographic and genetic boundaries of a population. Yet, the role that immigration of hatchery-produced adults may play in altering population dynamics and fitness of natural populations remains largely unquantified. Quantifying, whether natural populations are self-sustaining, functions as sources (population growth rate in the absence of dispersal, λ>1), or as sinks (λ<1) can be obscured by an inability to identify immigrants. In this study we use a new isotopic approach to demonstrate that a natural spawning population of Chinook salmon, (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) considered relatively healthy, represents a sink population when the contribution of hatchery immigrants is taken into consideration. We retrieved sulfur isotopes ((34)S/(32)S, referred to as δ(34)S) in adult Chinook salmon otoliths (ear bones) that were deposited during their early life history as juveniles to determine whether individuals were produced in hatcheries or naturally in rivers. Our results show that only 10.3% (CI = 5.5 to 18.1%) of adults spawning in the river had otolith δ(34)S values less than 8.5‰, which is characteristic of naturally produced salmon. When considering the total return to the watershed (total fish in river and hatchery), we estimate that 90.7 to 99.3% (CI) of returning adults were produced in a hatchery (best estimate = 95.9%). When population growth rate of the natural population was modeled to account for the contribution of previously unidentified hatchery immigrants, we found that hatchery-produced fish caused the false appearance of positive population growth. These findings highlight the potential dangers in ignoring source-sink dynamics in recovering natural populations, and question the extent to which declines in natural salmon populations are undetected by monitoring programs.

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