The historical, political and scientific aspects of salmon hatchery programmes designed to enhance fishery production, or to recover endangered populations, are reviewed. We start by pointing out that the establishment of hatcheries has been a political response to societal demands for harvest and conservation; given this social context, we then critically examined the levels of activity, the biological risks, and the economic analysis associated with salmon hatchery programmes. A rigorous analysis of the impacts of hatchery programmes was hindered by the lack of standardized data on release sizes and survival rates at all ecological scales, and since hatchery programme objectives are rarely defined, it was also difficult to measure their effectiveness at meeting release objectives. Debates on the genetic effects of hatchery programmes on wild fish have been dominated by whether correct management practices can reduce negative outcomes, but we noted that there has been an absence of programmatic research approaches addressing this important issue. Competitive interactions between hatchery and wild fish were observed to be complex, but studies researching approaches to reduce these interactions at all ecological scales during the entire salmon life history have been rare, and thus are not typically considered in hatchery management. Harvesting of salmon released from fishery enhancement hatcheries likely impacts vulnerable wild populations; managers have responded to this problem by mass marking hatchery fish, so that fishing effort can be directed towards hatchery populations. However, we noted that the effectiveness of this approach is dependant on accurate marking and production of hatchery fish with high survival rates, and it is not yet clear whether selective fishing will prevent overharvest of wild populations. Finally, research demonstrating disease transmission from hatchery fish to wild populations was observed to be equivocal; evidence in this area has been constrained by the lack of effective approaches to studying the fate of pathogens in the wild. We then reviewed several approaches to studying the economic consequences of hatchery activities intended to inform the social decisions surrounding programmes, but recognized that placing monetary value on conservation efforts or on hatcheries that mitigate cultural groups’ loss of historical harvest opportunities may complicate these analyses. We noted that economic issues have rarely been included in decision making on hatchery programmes. We end by identifying existing major knowledge gaps, which, if filled, could contribute towards a fuller understanding of the role that hatchery programmes could play in meeting divergent goals. However, we also recognized that many management recommendations arising from such research may involve trade-offs between different risks, and that decisions about these trade-offs must occur within a social context. Hatcheries have played an important role in sustaining some highly endangered populations, and it is possible that reform of practices will lead to an increase in the number of successful programmes. However, a serious appraisal of the role of hatcheries in meeting broader needs is urgently warranted and should take place at the scientific, but more effectively, at the societal level.