Sending fish back to school – strategies to improve post release survival of hatchery-reared threatened fish species

Sending fish back to school – strategies to improve post release survival of hatchery-reared threatened fish species
Juvenile tagged Murray cod. Photo credit: Michael Hutchison

Juvenile tagged Murray cod. Photo credit: Michael Hutchison

Fish stocking is one tool that can be used in conservation programs to help restore threatened fish stocks. Unfortunately hatchery-reared fish are domesticated and have not learnt the skills needed to survive in the wild. Pond-reared fingerlings seem to retain live food foraging skills and some bird avoidance behaviours, but they are naïve in avoiding predatory fish. Fish reared to larger sizes (i.e. to adult or sub-adult stage) in grow out facilities tend to be fed on artificial pellet diets and are protected from birds and other predators. These fish are likely to be inexperienced in foraging for live foods and poor at avoiding predatory birds like cormorants and pelicans if stocked into the wild. Pre-release training of hatchery-reared and grow-out facility reared fish is one strategy available to improve survival after stocking into the wild. The value of pre-release training fingerlings was evaluated in this study.

Initially the project assessed the effectiveness of tank-based training by exposing fingerlings (~50-75 mm total length) of Murray cod (Maccullochella peelii), Silver perch (Bidyanus bidyanus) and Freshwater catfish (Tandanus tandanus) en masse to predatory fish and chemical alarm signals from fish skin extract. Sub-adult Murray cod and sub-adult Silver perch from grow-out facilities (where they were reared on pellet diets and protected from bird exposure) were also trained to avoid simulated cormorant attacks. Training used a combination of bird models to harass and chase fish, cormorant odour and alarm signals from fish skin extract. Sub-adult Murray cod and adult Silver perch (~300 mm total length) from grow-out facilities were also trained to take live food. To assist this process a wild Murray cod or Silver perch was introduced into each training tank to help cue the behaviours of the fish from the grow-out facilities.

Stocking trials at three sites in the northern Murray-Darling Basin were used to test if pre-release training improved survival of stocked fingerlings of Silver perch and Murray cod. Predator free release cages were also tested as a stocking method to improve survival

Findings

Higher recapture rate of trained Murray cod indicating improved survival

Higher recapture rate of trained Murray cod indicating improved survival

Tank-based validation experiments confirmed that this training significantly improved the predator response behaviour of all three species compared to untrained fish. At least 72 hours training was required for Murray cod and Silver perch fingerlings and 48 hours training for catfish fingerlings to significantly change predator avoidance behaviour.

Trained sub-adult Silver perch showed significant behavioural changes in response to simulated cormorant attack compared to untrained groups. However sub-adult Murray cod showed no significant change in behaviour. Sub-adult Silver perch readily adapted to taking live shrimp in the training tank, but pellet-reared cod refused to take live shrimp over a one month training period.

Implications for native fish

Pre-release training of fingerlings led to a significant improvement in survival of trained Murray cod, compared to untrained control fish. At locations where predators were more abundant, the survival of trained Murray cod was up to four times higher than untrained Murray cod. Across all locations the average survival rate of trained Murray cod was twice that of untrained Murray cod.

There were no significant differences detected between trained and untrained Silver perch fingerlings stocked into the wild. One possible explanation is that Silver perch are a schooling fish. Rapid dispersal from the stocking sites and observed amalgamation of Silver perch into mixed schools of trained and untrained fish may have led to rapid social learning of the untrained fish from the trained fish.

Predator abundance had a significant impact on survival outcomes for both Murray cod and Silver perch fingerlings. Survival was lowest in locations with high predator abundance. The patchiness of predator distributions within a site means it is best to use several release points at a site.

Predator release cages seemed to disadvantage the survival of stocked Murray cod fingerlings. Predator free cages neither advantaged nor disadvantaged stocked Silver perch.

Sub-adult and adult Silver perch seem to be highly trainable, but sub-adult Murray cod are not. Silver perch are a social schooling species and this may enhance training. In contrast Murray cod tend to be territorial and solitary. The use of long term pellet reared sub-adult Murray cod in conservation restocking programs should be avoided. If large fish are required for conservation stocking, translocation of wild caught sub-adults or adults may be a better option.

There are some great related projects in the drop down boxes below, as well as this terrific article that talks more about Sending fish back to school

References

Hutchison, M., Stewart, D., Chilcott, K., Butcher, A., Henderson, A., McLennan, M. and Smith, P. (2012). Strategies to improve post release survival of hatchery-reared threatened fish species. MDBA Publication No. 135/11, Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Canberra.

Project MD742 – Review of domestication effects on stocked fish

Hutchison M., Butcher A., Norris A., Kirkwood J. and Chilcott K. (2012). A review of domestication effects on stocked fishes, strategies to improve post stocking survival of fishes and their potential application to threatened fish species recovery programs in the Murray–Darling Basin. Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Phillips, B. (ed.)(2002). Managing Fish Translocation and Stocking in the Murray-Darling Basin. Workshop held in Canberra, 25-26 September 2002: Statement, recommendations and supporting papers, WWF, Canberra.

Berejikian, B.A. (1995) The effects of hatchery and wild ancestry and experience on the relative ability of steelhead trout fry to avoid a benthic predator. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences  53, 2004-2014.

Brown, C. and Day, R.L. (2002) The future of stock enhancements: Lessons learned from conservation biology.  Fish and Fisheries 3, 79-94.

Brown, C. and Laland K. (2001) Social learning and life skills training for hatchery reared fish.  Journal of Fish Biology 59, 471-493.

Brown, C. & Laland, K.N. (2003) Social learning in fishes; a review. Fish and Fisheries 4, 280–288.

Brown, G.E. (2003)   Learning about danger: chemical alarm cues and local risk assessment in prey fishes.  Fish and Fisheries 4, 227-234.

Ebner, B. and Thiem, J. (2006) Movement of hatchery-reared and wild-reared Maccullochella macquariensis stocked in a large lowland river.  An ecological approach to re-establishing Australian freshwater cod populations: an application to Trout cod in the Murrumbidgee catchment.   (Ebner, B., Thiem, J., Lintermans, M. and Gilligan, D. eds.) pp 29-49. Final report to Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (project No. 2003/034). Canberra Parks, Conservation and Lands.

Ebner, B., Thiem, J. and Lintermans, M. (2006) Fate of two-year old, hatchery reared Maccullochella macquariensis, stocked into two upland rivers. In An ecological approach to re-establishing Australian freshwater cod populations: an application to Trout cod in the Murrumbidgee catchment.   (Ebner, B., Thiem, J., Lintermans, M. and Gilligan, D. eds.) pp 79-94. Final report to Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (project No. 2003/034). Canberra Parks, Conservation and Lands.

Järvi, T. and Uglem, I. (1993) Predator training improves the anti-predator behaviour of hatchery reared Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) smolt. Nordic Journal of Freshwater Research 68, 63-71.

Olla, B.L., Davis, M.W and Ryer, C.H. (1994) behavioural deficits in hatchery reared fish, potential effects on survival following release. Aquaculture and Fisheries Management  25 (Supplement 1), 19-34.

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