Early in the new Patagonia film Artifishal, tourists and school kids crowd into a viewing area, eagerly snapping photos of fish. Below them, a guide points out the distinguishing features of salmon species. But this isn’t a nature walk at the local preserve. The visitors stand in a dark building. The fish are clubbed and sliced and beheaded, then shoved down a line as men in orange bibs squeeze eggs and semen out of their bloodied carcasses. It’s as if a factory farm slaughterhouse had opened up for public tours
That somewhat jarring scene sets up a central premise of Artifishal: The hatchery system is not exactly hidden. It’s right there for us to see, particularly if we fish for trout and salmon. We have come to accept the model as not only normal, but essential. Without it, we believe, we wouldn’t have fish. Even those of us who claim to prefer wild fish tend to accept a certain inevitability about the hatchery system.
This film, directed by Josh Murphy, seeks to demolish any ideas we have about hatcheries being normal or essential. Applying an industrial agriculture model to wild fish is an abject failure that destroys wild fish runs, ecosystems, and even fishing.
Artifishal traces hatcheries from their inception, when they were seen as a way to have both salmon and power as dams were constructed across the Pacific Northwest. They arose in an era when anything, optimists believed, could be solved with a bit of technology. But the film argues that the notion that human engineering can match the complexity of salmon ecosystems is hubris.
The filmmakers interview scientists, advocates, tribal leaders, guides, and hatchery workers representing a variety of perspectives. A few argue fiercely for hatcheries, including fishing guide Jack Smith, who believes that the idea that our overpopulated world can have pristine nature is a “Disneyland” view. He argues that hunters and anglers are actually paying for conservation, and that without investments like hatcheries, there would be nothing left.
I suspect that view will resonate for many who line the banks and cast from drift boats around the Pacific Northwest. Isn’t it better to have such outdoor opportunities, even if they’re less than perfect?
And here is where Artifishal is most persuasive, showing concretely how the short-term gains of hatcheries damage the future of fishing. For instance, after the eruption of the Mount Saint Helens volcano in 1980, conventional wisdom suggested that the nearest river would be uninhabitable by steelhead for thousands of years. As such, hatcheries were considered a waste.
Within two years, wild fish began reclaiming the river in impressive numbers. Agencies responded by rebuilding hatcheries along the river—and wild fish populations suddenly declined.
Or take Montana, where research showed that stocking in wild trout streams actually reduced fish populations and angler opportunity. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks adopted the seemingly radical policy of not stocking its moving waterways holding self-sustaining trout populations. And wild trout populations skyrocketed.
Still, the fear remains that pulling the plug on trout and salmon hatcheries would doom both fish and fishing.
This is not always an easy film, especially for anglers. It asks us to actually see our rivers and our fish, without rose-colored glasses. All of us who fish talk a lot about connecting to nature. It is a way to escape the virtual reality of civilization and touch the real world of the wild.
But can we honestly achieve that if we are essentially just participating in a factory farm system disguised as wildness?
Undoing that system won’t be easy. Ken Halcomb, a killer whale conservationist interviewed in the film, perhaps says it best, “Everyone wants to save the whales; no one wants to change our way of life.”
The same could be true about those of us who want to restore and protect wild fish. Are we willing to give up short-term convenience for the long-term gains of wilder rivers and sustainable runs of migratory fish?
Artifishal ends with hope: the stories of the impending Klamath Dam removals and bans on open-net Atlantic salmon aquaculture in Washington. And it challenges us to take our own actions. Do we want a future where we connect to wild fish, or one where we cast to glorified livestock? As anglers, it’s up to us to find an answer, and fast.
Matthew L. Miller is author of Fishing Through the Apocalypse.