As a kid, I learned to fly-fish at a small limestone creek in central Pennsylvania. Its clear waters teemed with rainbow and brown trout, and no wonder—a few hundred yards away from its banks was a concrete fish hatchery, where the state bred and raised hundreds of thousands of those species to maturity every year, then released them. As I got more into fly-fishing, I volunteered to help stock this stream and others nearby, following behind a tanker truck aslosh with fish, then carrying bucketfuls of trout down to the water before releasing them with a gentle tip. A week or so later, I’d join hundreds of other anglers in catching most of those fish and carrying home full stringers of hatchery-raised fish for the grill.
A few years after I went to college, I learned that the hatchery had been closed down because it overflowed into the creek during heavy rains. The creek also had to be closed to fishing—the hatchery’s overflow polluted the water with nitrogen, creating a deadly algae bloom. I was sad, but it was OK—I had a new spot to fish, Spring Creek, near my classes at Penn State. It also had a trout hatchery on its banks.
My experience with fishing and hatcheries is shared by many anglers in the United States, including Josh “Bones” Murphy, who produced and directed Patagonia’s latest film, Artifishal, out on October 30. Murphy studied wildlife and fisheries biology at the University of Vermont, earned a master’s degree in fisheries, and went on to manage the on-campus hatchery at California’s Humboldt State University before shifting his attention to filmmaking. He got the directing job after Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard pitched him the idea of a movie about the backwardness of hatcheries. “He said, ‘We are doing a film about the arrogance of man,’” Murphy recently told me. “It was a perfect Yvon-ism.”
Suddenly, the human processes Murphy had taken for granted as normal—the concrete holding pools full of fry and the artificial insemination of millions of eggs—seemed unnatural, or worse. “It all seemed normal when I was working at the hatchery,” Murphy said. “Once I started researching for the movie, I was dumbstruck. How did I play a part in this and not recognize the scale and scope? We were putting fish in so that we could take fish out—not to make healthy rivers.”
This is the central thesis of Artifishal, which flips the ideology that both Murphy and I were taught on its head: the United States’ hatchery programs and their millions of fishy offspring are not saving salmon, but unwilding them. Paired with the hard facts about salmon populations on the West Coast—in California, more than 45 percent of salmonid species are endangered—it’s a powerful argument that hatcheries do not serve nature or fish, but rather humans, and have been an outright disaster for wild salmon and the environment.
The film seems built on Murphy’s own conversion. It’s told through a blend of perspectives and watery vignettes: a fisheries manager explains why hatcheries are vital, and we watch as adult salmon are killed by hand and millions of tiny new fish are created by industrial-level artificial insemination, the sperm and eggs blown out of them with an air hose. A writer recounts the early, uninformed history of fish hatcheries in the United States; a biologist explains the “wondrous” natural life cycle of salmon and how hatchery fish extirpate wild salmon. A Native American explains why his tribe needs hatcheries; other Native Americans explain how hatcheries have made their traditional fish catch untenable. Another biologist unwinds evolutionary forces and fish genetics and explains how hatcheries circumvent nature’s genius.
“At first I thought it would be an easy story to tell, and that people would have very well-developed pros and cons, and there would be good guys and bad guys,” Murphy told me. “I thought there would be so much black-and-white. It ended up becoming really gray.”
From there, Artifishal ramps up into hatcheries’ broad-reaching effects. The film provides convincing evidence that hatcheries are built solely to support industrial and recreational fisheries, and that they are used as political pawns of the government agencies that oversee them. We learn about how struggling salmon populations endanger killer whales and Native American tribes. The “salmon cannon” makes a cameo. Eventually, the film makes its way to a logical endpoint: the massive environmental impacts of salmon farming and hatcheries’ use as cover for dams, pollution, and overfishing.
The backwardness and absurdity of man’s intervention is a common thread, with pungent imagery: salmon are whacked with metal rods, frozen en masse into fish cubes that are then shattered, and disemboweled for their eggs, all in the name of industrializing what nature already does on its own.
It’s worth remembering that nature’s processes can be just as brutal. But like Patagonia’s other films, Artifishal has an agenda: spreading Chouinard’s scrappy environmentalism. Many people agree with him, myself included. But at times, the film oversimplifies. Notably, it glosses over the different types of fish hatcheries that exist—some of which, like captive breeding programs to save dwindling species, are less problematic than others. In an email, Patrick Samuel, a program manager at the fishing conservation organization CalTrout, explained that’s the reason his organization did not officially endorse the film, though it did host screenings. “Hatcheries cannot replace fish that are adapted to their local conditions,” Samuel wrote. “That said, keep in mind that there are different kinds of hatcheries built expressly and designed for different purposes, so painting them all with a broad brush is inaccurate and unfair.”
Murphy’s counterpoint is that “conservation” hatcheries and captive breeding programs are a bandage on a gaping wound—a free pass to keep fishing and damming rivers where species are struggling. And he’s right.
Ultimately, Artifishal sets out a powerful argument against the misuse of fish hatcheries in the United States. It’s also the perfect film for our apocalyptic times. As the Amazon burns and the polar ice caps melt, Artifishal takes on a problem with a relatively simple fix and dishes out equal parts education and hope.
My fish hatchery story has a happy ending: it was abandoned, and local groups eventually turned the stream into a haven for native brook trout. (Though it’s worth noting that those brook trout were likely raised in—you guessed it—a hatchery.) The film ends somewhat happily, too, by showing activists’ efforts to remove dams on the Klamath River and allow native fish populations to return and spawn, unhindered by hatcheries. Saving salmon stocks isn’t that hard, Murphy seems to say. All humans need to do is get the hell out of the way and let Mother Nature work.