Steelhead 101: Defining native, wild, hatchery and natural-origin

In Alaska, California, Idaho, Oregon, Science Friday, Washington by Nick Chambers

In recent posts we covered the basics of defining escapement and run size, and the ways these are measured by resource managers. Today, we turn our focus to the complex terminology used for describing and comparing hatchery and wild steelhead. Steelhead are typically referred to as either being “wild” or “hatchery,” but they may also be defined as being “native” or “natural-origin.” But what do these terms really mean?


Let’s start with the easiest one: hatchery. A hatchery steelhead is a fish that was born and raised in a hatchery. That’s it. Easy peasy.



A native steelhead, on the other hand, is a fish that has never had any hatchery parents in its lineage. Zip, zero.


While the terms hatchery and native clearly delineate between fish that come from a hatchery and those that never had any hatchery influence, the terms wild and natural-origin are more nuanced.  For example, a wild steelhead is a fish that is born and raised in nature. Traditionally the term wild referred to fish that did not have any hatchery influence. But the term had to be modified to account for hatchery fish that are spawning in the wild and producing offspring. Hence, wild now refers to steelhead that are spawned and reared in nature, but may have hatchery or native parents, or a combination thereof. Basically, the parentage doesn’t matter — as long as the fish was spawned and reared in nature, it is referred to as a wild fish.


The term natural-origin also refers to a steelhead that was spawned and reared in nature, regardless of parental origin. Essentially, the terms natural-origin and wild are interchangeable. Natural-origin has been used increasingly in recovery efforts where there are rising numbers of hatchery fish spawning in nature.



At the end of the day, it is probably easiest to refer to steelhead as hatchery, wild or native, while understanding that natural-origin and wild refer to the same type of fish. Regardless, what is most important is that we have a way of defining the different types of steelhead present in our rivers.  Such definitions have implications for recovery and management, and as we will discuss in the coming weeks, they are essential to understanding how we measure and evaluate hatchery effects on steelhead populations and fisheries.