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Wild vs. Hatchery Steelhead

     Assorted studies have shown that there are limited numbers of naturally produced steelhead  in the lower Cattaraugus Creek watershed.  Due to this fact, some anglers that want to exercise their right to creel the occasional steelhead for the dinner table may want to preferentially select hatchery fish to keep rather than naturally produced fish.  There are a couple different ways to tell the difference between hatchery and stream born fish.  While both are quick and easy to determine by the average fisherman, they do have their limitations which are included in their descriptions. 

Fin Clips

     Fin clipping is an obvious type of marking and the most accurate for determining if a fisherman is looking at a hatchery reared fish.  It involves looking for fin clips that were made in the hatchery before the fish were stocked. The fins usually clipped are the adipose, pelvic and pectoral.  The picture above shows a clip on the pelvic fin.  Fin clips are used by state agencies to mark a particular lot of fish they are releasing, so that the fish can be identified in  the future.  New York only clips* about 10,000 steelhead that are pen reared in Dunkirk Harbor.  The rest of the steelhead that are stocked into WNY streams are not clipped.  There may be clipped steelhead that are stocked by PA or OH, but we have no referenced information to back this up.  So, essentially what this means is that while fin clips are a good identification marker, there are very few steelhead swimming around WNY with this type of mark. 

Deformed Fins

   The second way to identify hatchery fish is to look for bent fin rays in the fins, especially the dorsal.  The picture above shows bent rays in the dorsal fin.  Bent fin rays are often a result of unnaturally crowded conditions in the hatchery.  While, this again is an easy way to determine hatchery vs. wild, it is not an absolute measure.  Steelhead raised in a hatchery can exhibit perfectly formed fins.  With this being said, there is probably an even smaller chance of naturally produced steelhead having deformed fins simply due to the fact that population dynamics wouldn't allow a juvenile population to over crowd in a natural environment.  Starvation and death would keep the population size in check with the available resources a particular stream can provide.  So, if a deformed fin is encountered, it is a pretty good bet that the fish was born in a hatchery.

DNA/Genetic Analysis

    This is the only sure fire way of determining hatchery vs naturally produced steelhead.  Obviously, this involves intricate scientific work and could not be accomplished by your average fisherman.  Normally this type of work is done in association with research projects run by colleges, universities and state/federal agencies.  It is also extremely costly, thus it is not done on a regular basis. 

 * Note - clipping the number of steelhead that are stocked in WNY is a monumental task for the guys at the Lake Erie Fishery Unit to do by themselves.  If anyone is interested in getting a volunteer group together to spend a couple of days at the Altmar hatchery clipping our steelhead each spring, I am sure the LEU would be very interested in discussing this with you.

The above picture was scanned from the Pere Marquette River Journal, vol. 2 no. 4, 1994.  Editor: Frank Amato
Cattaraugus Information and History Topo Maps
Fish of  Cattaraugus Creek
Stocking Information Salmon River Hatchery Discharge Data and Corresponding  Stream Illustrations
Wild Salmonid  Studies and Information Weekly Fishing Reports Great Lakes Fishing  Regulations
Current Weather Information for the Area The Springville Dam Debate Wild vs. Hatchery Determination