'Artifishal' doc film explores the murky world of salmon farms and hatcheries

Artifishal film poster
© Patagonia Films (used with permission)

It takes the controversial stance that more fish doesn't necessarily mean better fish.

Patagonia, the outdoor gear retailer, has just produced a documentary film, set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 25. 'Artifishal' is all about salmon, and how fish hatcheries and fish farming are destroying wild fish populations. This may sound like a counterintuitive view, as these things are typically portrayed as beneficial to the environment, to species rejuvenation, and to food security, but as 'Artifishal' reveals, they have a devastating effect.

Salmon genetics are incredibly complex, with fish evolving to match specific rivers, and even the season of the run in which they participate. Hatcheries are unable to replicate this. In the words of evolutionary ecologist, Dr. Kyle Young:

"We now know that taking wild fish and exposing them to a hatchery environment – breeding them, hatching them, rearing them for any amount of time, really – changes the genetic makeup."

The result is a genetically inferior fish, one that has not been raised in as hostile an environment as a wild fish, and is less adapted to life in the wild. When hatchery fish spawn with wild fish, it degrades the wild fish and makes them less fit for life in the river.

salmon hatchery© Ben Moon/Patagonia Films: The concrete jungle. Raceways for raising juvenile spring Chinook salmon at the Sawtooth Hatchery, which is managed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Stanley, Idaho.

This has far-reaching effects. The hatchery fish are far smaller than wild ones, which one whale researcher tells the filmmakers is affecting orca populations in Puget Sound, Washington. Whereas salmon used to be around 22 pounds each, they're now averaging 8-10 pounds, and there is fear that orca populations will suffer from lack of adequate food.

Indigenous communities are seeing annual commercial hunts suspended, due to unstable stocks. This has a profound effect on the health and wellbeing of the communities, for so much of west coast indigenous culture is intimately tied to salmon and its associated rituals.

Meanwhile, even when dams that have been devastating to salmon populations are taken down and rivers are allowed to return to their natural flow, these efforts are accompanied by the construction of hatcheries, which has been shown time and again to erode wild fish stocks.

'Artifishal' takes a provocative dive into the link between hatcheries and politics, hinting that hatcheries exist more for the pleasure of recreational anglers than they do for the actual wellbeing of fish populations. Federal money is allocated to hatcheries based on the number of fishing licenses sold, and the amounts are exorbitant; in one study, salmon were found to cost taxpayers $68,000 per individual fish.

salmon in net pen© Ben Moon/Patagonia Films: Net-pen salmon farms concentrate fish at unnaturally high levels, creating ideal conditions for disease, parasites and other health issues. Alta, Norway.

Then there's the problem of fish farming, which Patagonia founder and producer of this film, Yvon Chouinard, views as equivalent to hatcheries, in that it dilutes the DNA of the wild species. Horrifying footage of net pens in Norway reveals diseased salmon living in cramped conditions with wounds the size of a man's fist, some with bodies deformed like the letter S. When these pens break open (as they do on occasion), these ill and non-native species are released en masse into already-sensitive ecosystems.

The film was eye-opening and grimace-inducing. At times I had to look away because the footage made me queasy, especially the brutal way in which hatchery employees capture wild females and harvest their eggs. Fish are not often thought of as intelligent or self-aware in the way that larger land-based animals are, but the film quickly changes that perception. Salmon are shown to be highly evolved, complex, and ancient animals, who deserve the right to 'rewild' their populations. If that means less fishing and less salmon-eating for us, then that is how it should be.

protesters against salmon pens© Ben Moon/Patagonia Films: Concerned citizens protest net-pen salmon farms at a Cooke Aquaculture facility. Eight months later, the state legislature voted to stop renewal of leases for Atlantic salmon net pens in Puget Sound. Bainbridge Island, Washington

The film premieres on April 25 at Tribeca Film Festival, followed by a Q&A with the producers and fish experts. There will be showings at Patagonia stores across the U.S. Learn more at patagonia.com/artifishal.

'Artifishal' doc film explores the murky world of salmon farms and hatcheries
It takes the controversial stance that more fish doesn't necessarily mean better fish.

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