Short History of Hatcheries of California

Beginning in April and ending in October, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife  (DFW) plants young trout (fingerlings) into lakes, reservoirs, rivers and streams, but

before rivers and streams became polluted,

before freshwater habitats were destroyed,

before rivers were tamed by dams; and

before the ever-increasing consuming of natural resources and growth in recreation …

There were no hatcheries!

This was when anadromous salmon and steelhead trout once had unencumbered access to most of California’s rivers and resident trout had more habitats to live in. However, later hatcheries became necessary to supplement natural populations due to loss of wild salmon and trout. (Related article on reduced populations of wild salmon –  click)

There are three sources of literature that provide a comprehensive understanding of the role of hatcheries in American and CaliforniaOne source is entitled, An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World written by Anders Halverson which provides an exhaustively researched writing on how rainbow trout became the most commonly stocked freshwater fish in the United States.  He traced its beginning to San Francisco Bay and the McCloud River in Northern California where the rainbow trout was artificially propagated to increase Americans’ opportunity to get back to nature by going fishing.

Two other sources are State of California The Resources Agency Department of Fish and Game Fish Bulletin 150 A History of California’s Fish Hatcheries 1870–1960 written by Earl Leitriz, 1970 and Fish Bulletin 178. History And Status of Introduced Fishes In California, 1871 – 1996  written by Dill, William A and Cordone, Almo J, 1997.

  • Bulletin 150, A History of California’s Fish Hatcheries 1870–1960, documents the development of fish culture in California from 1870 through 1960. During this period, 170 hatcheries and egg collecting stations were constructed and the writing provides a brief description of many of them.
  • Bulletin 178. History and Status of Introduced Fishes In California, 1871 – 1996, gives and extensive history and status of each fish species in California. It even tells about the attitudes of administrators ichthyologists, fish culturists, fishery biologists, fishermen, and the public toward each species and provides a discussion of their value.

Synopsis of Early Hatcheries of California  1/

California Acclimatization Society Hatchery, San Francisco – 1870 – 1871  

The California Acclimatization Society, under the supervision of J. G. Woodbury, first began experimenting with and had several successful hatches of eastern brook trout eggs shipped from the eastern states prior to the establishment of a State Fish Commission. A small hatchery, situated near the City Hall in San Francisco, was utilized in this pioneer work.

Trout native from Lake Tahoe area, as well as eastern brook trout, were hatched and distributed. Some fish and eggs were sold to help pay expenses. Others were retained as broodstock.

Fish were hatched in approximately 1,200 gallons of water kept around 50 degrees.  The hatching trough was 12 feet long, 14 inches wide, and 10 inches deep. Partitions, each 2 inches high, divided the trough into 10 sections. Fine gravel was placed in the trough bottom. After the fish hatched, they were placed in Lake Merced, ponds near San Francisco, and small streams in different parts of the State.

State Hatching House, Berkeley—1870–1877

The first hatchery owned and operated by the State was situated on the grounds of the University of California, Berkeley. Through 1873,  the California Acclimatization Society reared trout and operated this hatchery which was financed by the Fish Commission. It’s operation was replaced by the larger San Leandro Hatchery in 1878 because the building became too small for the quantities of fish to be reared and lack of a reliable water supply.

Baird Hatchery—1872–1883, 1888–1935

In 1872, Professor Spencer F. Baird, the first United States Commissioner of Fisheries, instructed Livingston Stone to travel to the Pacific Coast to obtain a supply of king salmon eggs for introduction into East Coast waters to compensate for the depletion of the Atlantic salmon. Stone was at that time one of the recognized authorities on fish culture in the United States. He had been involved for a number of years in work on fish culture in New Hampshire and other eastern states.

Stone arrived in San Francisco in August 1872. He initially could not obtained reliable information regarding the habits of king salmon or where they spawned. A general impression prevailed that the spawning grounds were near the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, but Stone soon concluded that the fish spawned elsewhere.

Mr. Montague, chief engineer of the Southern Pacific Company, informed him that he had seen salmon spawning at the junction of the McCloud and Pit Rivers. At that time the terminus of the railroad was at Red Bluff, 50 miles from the reported spawning grounds on the McCloud River.

Stone traveled to the area accompanied by J. G. Woodbury, who had been in the employ of both the California Acclimatization Society and the California Fish Commission.  Stone, aided by his two young assistants, Myron Green and William T. Perrin (his nephew), succeeded in establishing the first salmon breeding station on the Pacific Coast on the McCloud River. He named the hatchery Baird, in honor of his friend and employer.

His report of the Commissioners of Fisheries of California for the years 1874–1875 stated, “The largest establishment in the world, for the hatching of salmon eggs, is that of the Government of the United States, on the McCloud River, in Shasta County,… from six to ten millions of young Salmon are hatched each year and distributed.”

The number of salmon eggs collected at Baird Hatchery varied greatly from year to year. In 1883, only 1,000,000 eggs were taken. This was the lowest number obtained since operations began in 1872. The decline was attributed to a railroad being constructed from Redding northward. The salmon were disturbed by heavy blasting, many were taken for food, and others wantonly destroyed by railroad workers. The same condition existed in 1884 and the station was then closed.

In 1888 the site was reopened to supply eggs for the newly established Sisson Hatchery. During the seasons of 1903 and 1905, over 25,000,000 eggs were taken; in 1911, only 60,000 eggs were obtained, and the end was in sight. During the later years, Baird Hatchery was primarily a handling station for eggs from Battle Creek and Mill Creek hatcheries. Hedgpeth (1941) presents a vivid account of the founding and history of Baird Hatchery.

In1943, the magnificent king salmon of the Sacramento River system were cut off from their ancestral spawning grounds by Shasta Dam. Stone could not have had any idea that the hatchery site would be inundated by the water stored behind gigantic Shasta Dam. This may have been the fate of Baird Hatchery; however, a living memorial to Baird Hatchery remains in the streams of New Zealand, to which they were successfully transplanted in 1873.

Today’s California Hatcheries

Did you know that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife operates one of the largest hatchery systems in the United States:

  • 14 trout hatchery facilities owned by DFW.
  • Two salmon and steelhead hatchery facilities owned by DFW.
  • Eight salmon and steelhead hatchery facilities owned by others.

Each year, the Department puts millions of hatchery-raised salmonoids (trout, steelhead and salmon), in many of the state’s 4,800 lakes and reservoirs, and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams. Hatchery fish supply year-round recreational fishing to nearly 2.4 million licensed anglers in California. Employees use specialized trucks to stock trout in approximately 650 streams, lakes and reservoirs and once used a specially-equipped airplane to stock trout in approximately 900 high mountain lakes. Many waters are stocked weekly, others monthly or annually, and a few areas receive fish every second or third year.

The Future of Fish Planting by Hatcheries

Stocking non-native trout has become a concern due to evidence that fish stocking is damaging California’s natural environment and causing a decline in native species populations. In an October 2006 report, The Need For Fish Stocking Reform In California Preserving The Golden State’s Freshwater Heritage,  the Pacific Rivers Council concluded, the Department of Fish and Wildlife needs to take the following steps:

  1. Complete an environmental impact report, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act, on the state’s fish stocking program. This report should describe the environmental effects of the program, detail possible policy options, and develop mitigation measures, as needed. This should be initiated as soon as possible.
  2. Place a moratorium on stocking operations that negatively affect California’s native species until the above report is completed and made available to the public for review and comment.
  3. Incorporate into its fish and wildlife management programs a long-term strategy to protect California’s high-quality watersheds and the native species they support.

In May 2007, a lawsuit by Pacific Rivers Council and the Center for Biological Diversity resulted in a court order to stop stocking.  The court agreed with the plaintiffs who found fish stocking has “significant environmental impacts” on aquatic ecosystems and “in particular, on native species of fish, amphibians and insects, some of which are threatened or endangered,”  DFW was order to prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and when completed, alternatives would be evaluated and management decisions made. 2/

The California Department of Fish and Game agreed to interim restrictions on stocking of trout in California waters to limit harm to native fish and amphibians while the agency completes an Environmental Impact Report under the California Environmental Quality Act. 3/   In October 2008, DFW asked the court for an extension, until January 2010.

The interim restrictions affected a total of 25 animal species which were identified as being potentially sensitive to trout stocking:


Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita            California golden trout

Oncorhynchus mykiss ssp.                       McCloud River Redband trout

Oncorhynchus clarkii                                Coastal cutthroat trout

Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus                   Southern California steelhead ESU

Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus                   South-central California steelhead ESU

Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus                   Central California steelhead ESU

Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus                   Summer-run steelhead trout

Oncorhynchus tshawytscha                      Winter-run Chinook salmon

Oncorhynchus tshawytscha                      Spring-run Chinook salmon

Gila orcutti                                                 Arroyo chub

Gila bicolor thalassina                               Goose Lake tui chub

Mylopharodon conocephalus                    Hardhead

Catostomus microps                                 Modoc sucker

Rhinichthys osculus ssp.                           Owens speckled dace

Gila bicolor snyderi                                    Owens tui chub

Catostomus santaanae                              Santa Ana sucker


Rana aurora draytonii                                Cascades frog

Rana boylii                                                 Foothill yellow-legged frog

Rana pipiens                                              Northern leopard frog

Rana muscosa/Rana sierrae                      Mountain yellow-legged frog

Rana aurora aurora                                    Northern red-legged frog

Rana pretiosa                                              Oregon spotted frog

Ascaphus truei                                             Arroyo toad


1/ Source – Calisphere is a service of the UC Libraries, powered by the California Digital Library. The Regents of The University of California (slightly modified)


3/ Provisional Fish Release Plans for 2016




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