Wild Atlantic salmon population numbers are declining due to many human-caused factors such as habitat degradation. Consequently, many local communities throughout the years have thought ‘why not give nature a helping hand?’ Thus, the concept of hatcheries was born.
"Small-scale hatcheries have both psychological and social ripple effects for those who operate them," PhD candidate Hannah Harrison says.
Small-scale, voluntarily operated salmon hatcheries have been a popular management tool for Atlantic salmon in Norway and other European countries for over 150 years.
“The initial intention of hatcheries was to support and strengthen existing stocks of wild salmon with fish hatched and raised in captivity,” Harrison explains.
However, in the past 30 years, scientific knowledge has emerged showing that these hatcheries and their associated stocking practices may have deleterious effects on wild salmon populations. As a result, wild salmon managers in countries like Norway and Wales have introduced new regulatory guidelines and policies that restrict or, in some cases, terminate hatchery and stocking projects.
“Today, hatcheries are controversial and have come under intense scrutiny,” Harrison says.
Despite decades of research documenting the negative effects, hatcheries remain a widely used and popular conservation tool for river owners, angling clubs, and as a state-level disaster mitigation tool (e.g., gene banking, hydropower habitat loss compensation). The debate about them has been heated, as there is controversy between advocates and critics of hatcheries.
“They debate the ecological and biological ramifications of stocking salmon.”
The human dimension
The goals of Harrison’s doctorate has been to uncover the underlying causes and drivers of conflict surrounding the use of small-scale, voluntarily operated salmon hatcheries as conservation tools.
“Conservation efforts do not exist in a vacuum,” Harrison explains.
“Whatever actions are taken, they affect nature and the human society around them. My research links together social issues with biologically-driven conservation efforts.”
Harrison’s thesis represents a much-needed human dimensions approach to conflict revolving around the use of small-scale, voluntarily operated Atlantic salmon hatcheries in Wales, Norway, and Germany. In her project, Harrison has used methods such as interviews, document analysis, and participant observation.
Humans as part of the natural environment
Whereas managers and fisheries scientists primarily view wild salmon and their habitats as best left unimpeded by human activity, local-level cultivators have a more mixed view of human-salmon relationships.
“They typically view humans as interrelated with the natural environment, and hatcheries as an important bridge to human relationships with nature rather than an obstacle to pristine salmon environments.”
Importantly, cultivators argued that in today’s increasingly interconnected environments, it is impossible to remove human influence from nature and thus those technologies (e.g., hatcheries and stocking) which bring humans closer to nature and allow them to maintain natural processes should be encouraged rather than eliminated.
Harrison found that hatcheries provide psychological, social, and conservation benefits to those who engage in cultivation work or peripheral hatchery activities (e.g., meetings, river based conservation work, etc.) The participants listed many positive associations connected to the hatcheries. They related a deep satisfaction and an array of other positive aspects related to their hatchery work. Some of the interviewed cultivators spend a significant amount of time in the hatchery, often one or more hours per day.
Harrison says that the moment when the salmon is released into the wild is singled out as a particularly special experience for hatchery workers.
“Through the hatcheries, the volunteers can combine their skill sets and interest in doing conservation work with their personal interests, like salmon and angling.”
Wales before and after
Harrison has also examined a conflict around using voluntarily-operated hatcheries as a conservation tool. In this case, she focused on Wales as a case study thatpresented a classic example of a “before-and-after” management scenario where a salmon management policy had recently changed - in 2014 - and stakeholders were able to express their perspectives on hatcheries and hatchery management from before and after this change.
“I found that the stocking debate was shaped by two discourse coalitions, promoting either pro- or anti-hatchery arguments. In addition, there emerged a third coalition promoting compromise and inclusive conservation practices,” Harrison says.
The debate took place on multiple platforms called discourse planes: the social plane, media plane, social media plane, and policy planes, and the tone of voice and opinions manifested differently between them.
“There were multiple stages of conflict, and they were intensified by the decision-making process.”
Harrison found that the policy change forced all stakeholder groups to acquiesce to one perspective of stocking, and consequently to undesired social side effects such as secondary conflicts and alienation of some stakeholder groups.
“The process and the aftermath explain why the conflict is persistent today even after the policy decision in 2014 has passed,” Harrison comments.
Improved communication in the future
Harrison calls for a more refined mode of discourse and communication.
“The way in which managers to choose to interact with local cultivation communities and the methods they use to enact new policies are important and should reflect the many values that hatcheries offer.”
Harrison’s findings illuminate why efforts to limit the use of these hatcheries or close them altogether have been met with strong resistance in different European countries.
“Hopefully, my work can help salmon managers choose policies and management solutions that are more likely to be accepted by all relevant stakeholder groups.”
Harrison's thesis title is: "Cultivating conflict: Perspectives on the human dimensions of voluntary Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) hatcheries in a conservation context".