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The Fish Hatchery Fiasco - Part II

September 23, 2002

I remember a high school field trip and watching the Department of Natural Resources planting fingerlings in a lake. The truck had backed down a boat launch and a pipe was opened up, letting the contents of the truck pour into the lake. As the truck driver ate his lunch in the cab, water and fingerling rainbow trout spewed into the lake. The truck driver wasn't the only one having lunch that day, seagulls and merganser ducks were in a feeding frenzy. At the time it crossed my mind, "Is this a good way to do this?" Granted that was 35 years ago and today fish planting is done in a much more sophisticated manner, with a lot less mortality to the fish.

What has not changed in the last 35 years is the impact that planted fish and hatcheries have on the natural system. More importantly, little research has been done to answer the following tough questions. What happens to wild fish when planted fish are introduced to a river system? What impact does a hatchery have on downstream water quality if the hatchery is located on a river? What would happen if we used the money spent on hatchery facilities and management to improve habitat and encourage the natural reproduction of "free wild fish"? Many of these questions have not been answered because quite frankly the average American likes the "quick fix" that hatchery planted fish offer to the sportsperson. But as we have learned in resource management issues, seldom is easiest the best thing to do!

Over the years very few researches have challenged the "status quo" and helped find answers to the above questions. Robert Bachman in a Pennsylvania stream determined that newly stocked, hatchery brown trout not only attacked fish more frequently that wild fish did but wasted energy in excessive and aimless swimming about. As they did this they blundered into territories of wild trout, drawing them out into energy-consuming conflicts and most likely exposing them to increased predation from other fish and animals. In Bachman's study, both hatchery fish and wild fish lost energy and died at a greater rate than did the wild fish before the hatchery fish were stocked.

Richard Vincent found the same thing in his study of Montana streams. When trout were stocked, populations declined, and after each year in which not trout were stocked, the overall population rose.

In Michigan, the Department of Natural Resources, Fisheries Division has consistently lost every lawsuit filed against their Platte River Hatchery by the Platte Lake Association. The Association has convinced the court that the discharge of nutrients from the hatchery has increased phosphorous loading in the downstream river and lake. This in turn has increased both weed growth and the aging process of the lake. In the end the state was allowed to keep the hatchery open but only after making major changes in its operation and agreeing to meet much reduced limits for nutrient discharge. How many other hatcheries in this country are guilty of doing the same thing?

The last tough question, dealing with spending money on habitat improvement instead hatcheries, has even less research behind it. Many organization like Trout Unlimited, Conservation Districts and Resource Conservation and Development Councils have long encouraged state and federal agencies to direct tax dollars to habitat improvement. Today most state and federal fisheries people give lip service support for the logic of improving habitat but few have changed their budgets and programs to reflect it. Although Michigan agencies have done a better than average job of improving stream habitat, most agencies are not willing to stand up to political process that often supports the traditional way of doing things.

Many organizations, like the Conservation Resource Alliance, have aggressively been doing river restoration during the last 10-20 years. As these rivers are starting to show improvements in the natural reproduction of wild fish, the data will hopefully mount supporting greater budgets for habitat improvement over building more hatcheries.

A Closing Thought

This week I close with another Ray White quote from Fly Fish America,
"With all the genetic and behavioral problems that exist, and in the face of so much longstanding evidence that hatcheries don't work, what is it that keeps us building more and more of them"? My response to this may be harsh! Part of the blame belongs to the men and women that buy fishing licenses and choose to take the instant gratification that hatcheries supply. Instead, we should promote the wisdom of using our limited tax dollars to improve the habitat that will, in the long run, be of more benefit to our children and grandchildren. In the next article we will talk about what facts and information you can share with your state and federal fisheries people on this issue.


Copyright 2002 Bob Aslan, All rights reserved.


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