An early morning mist rises from the waters, revealing what lies below. As if on cue, a worker at the Quinebaug Valley State Trout Hatchery breaks the surface and the stillness with a long-handled dip net, pulling up maybe a dozen rainbow trout from a circular tank. He weighs the fish, then hands the net to a colleague, who heaves the load into a truck. It goes on like this, net after net, for nearly an hour, until the truck is brimming with about 2,000, 1-pound fish on their way to the big leagues.
Hatcheries like this one in Central Village, Connecticut, exist to support sport fishing’s 60 million anglers. There are about 809 hatcheries and fish culture support facilities that raise fish for stocking. Some solely provide fish for put-and-take fisheries; others raise threatened or endangered species for conservation. In practice, most hatcheries do both. It’s big business, with the infrastructure alone valued at $10.2 billion, according to a 2018 paper published by the American Fisheries Society. Quinebaug estimates the live value of its fish at $1.4 million — about $5 per fish.
Nearly two centuries after the practice began in this country, stocking lakes, streams and coastal waters with hatchery-raised fish remains a complex and sometimes controversial practice. Proponents say hatchery stocks make it possible for millions of Americans to enjoy the piscatorial arts with a reasonable expectation of catching a fish. Without facility-reared fish, they argue, already diminished native and wild stocks simply couldn’t stand up to angling pressure coupled with continued habitat loss.
Critics are quick to point out that hatcheries aren’t the be all, end all. They’re concerned with hatchery stocks interbreeding with native fish and outcompeting them for food and habitat.
There have been hatcheries in China since 2,100 B.C. and in North America since the 1800s, when anglers first grew concerned about declining fish populations. As European immigrants moved west, they put pressure on the rivers and streams that provided fish for food and sport. And erosion and contaminants from logging, mining and slaughterhouses washed into waterways, altering fish habitat.
The sentiment at the time was simply to replenish wild populations with fish grown in captivity. Throughout the 19th century, rail cars journeyed across the country filled with common carp — an invasive species from Asia — that were dumped into the waters. Alternatives to stocking, such as catch limits, were not considered viable. Hatcheries became a flawed solution, not unlike believing a government can print more money to pay down its debt.
The effort became more organized in the years following the Civil War. The U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries was formed in 1871, making it the first federal agency devoted to a natural resource. Soon after, it established the country’s first fisheries laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where scientists began surveying marine life. A year later, the American Fish Culturists’ Association, which would become the American Fisheries Society, apportioned funding for the commission to begin aquaculture development.
The science was rudimentary. Fish were stocked in rivers with habitats that weren’t compatible with the species, so they often died or altered the ecosystem. “[Fisheries managers] did what they thought was right, and now we deal with the consequences,” says Jesse Trushenski, president of the American Fisheries Society, a coalition of 8,000 experts in biology, fisheries management and economics, among other fields.
By the mid-1900s there was no evidence that stocking had produced an increased yield, so fisheries biologists began looking for new methods to enhance fish populations. Until then, success had been measured by the number of fry released, not the number of adults that survived to enter the fishery, according to H. Lee Blankenship and Kenneth M. Leber in their 1995 paper “A Responsible Approach to Marine Stock Enhancement.” Today, a responsible approach is still being sought. Measuring the success of hatcheries remains elusive, and while some agencies have tried to gauge their success, many don’t bother.
No Single Solution
One thing that has become clear is that stocking alone is not the solution to declining fish populations. An ecosystem-scale management model outlined by Blankenship and Leber emphasizes that successful stock enhancement programs should have clear goals and ways to measure success, along with a genetic management plan to ensure hatchery fish don’t compromise the fitness of wild populations. Their model, which has been widely adopted, takes a three-pronged approach: stocking, harvest control regulations and habitat rehabilitation.
The effort is funded by the Dingell-Johnson Act (also known as the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act), a 1950 law implementing a federal excise tax on fishing equipment and boat fuel. The funds are distributed to state fish and wildlife agencies that oversee all aspects of sport fishing, including managing licenses, operating hatcheries, and conducting habitat rehabilitation and educational programs. The level of funding each state receives is determined by its number of licensed anglers and its geographic size. License fees are combined with the tax on equipment and fuel to run the agencies. Ninety-six tribal hatcheries receive funding through state and federal grants.
Stock enhancement critics point to the Dingell-Johnson Act to suggest that government agencies are walking a fine line between monetizing fisheries and conserving them. Doug Thompson, a professor of geomorphology at Connecticut College who studies habitat restoration, worries that every step of the fisheries system is controlled by the same agencies. “It’s a little like the fox watching the henhouse,” Thompson says. “The state agencies doing the hatchery management are also the ones in charge of water quality and general management of river systems.” The dual role becomes a concern if hatchery activity is found to be harming the environment.
Critics say conservation projects dependent on recreational fishing for funding are a contradiction. Proponents, however, see the hatchery system as a way to encourage anglers to engage in conservation.
Hatcheries serve as “storefronts of aquatic conservation,” Trushenski says, adding that hatcheries are where many children gain an appreciation for fish. Hatcheries host fishing derbies, field trips and educational programs. “If we don’t have those places where people can acquire that experience and that awareness, it’s really hard to get them to act and think in terms of conservation later on,” she says.
Engaging kids with hatcheries might be one way to combat “nature deficit disorder,” the perceived lack of connection that younger generations have to the outdoors. But Thompson says hatcheries are hardly connecting kids to nature. “Although children do not often visit factories or feedlots to see the engines of mass production, hatcheries appear to be a general exception to the rule,” he writes in his book The Quest for the Golden Trout.
Native, Wild or Natural?
Nothing fires up hatchery folks as much as genetics. When hatcheries were introduced in the United States, the study of genetics didn’t exist. Strains of fish were chosen for their ease of raising and ability to grow quickly, characteristics that still guide selection today, along with disease resistance and the propensity to fight when caught. The advent of genetics gave rise to concerns about how the genes of fish raised in captivity might differ from those of wild fish, and about how introducing captives might affect the genetic fitness of wild populations should those fish interbreed. Some studies have shown the dangers of interbreeding, while others offer examples of hatchery and wild varieties interbreeding with no loss of fitness.
“[Fishery managers] know more about the genetics of those fish than I know about my own family,” Trushenski says. She adds that state and federal agencies closely monitor genetics at all hatcheries, unless they are exclusively put-and-take.
“Not all fish are created equal,” says Trout Unlimited CEO Chris Wood, who believes stocked fish don’t learn in captivity the skills necessary to survive in the wild. Or, as retired fisheries biologist Ray White puts it, it’s like “turning barnyard chickens loose in the forest.”
If hatchery fish are so genetically inferior to wild ones that they don’t live to reproduce, then concerns about interbreeding are moot. Thompson estimates less than 1 percent of stocked trout survive in the wild for more than a year, in part because they’re caught so quickly. (Thompson says in 2009, 58 percent of Connecticut’s hatchery trout were expected to be gone within two weeks of stocking.) But many experts agree that hatchery fish could threaten native populations by outcompeting them. In response, some put-and-take hatcheries will start sterilizing fish.
The gray area is expansive, and the specifics of genetics management are difficult to nail down because of such words as native, wild and natural, which are used liberally and often interchangeably. Wild fish are those born and reared in a natural environment. Native fish are species that have historically lived in a body of water without being introduced by humans. Naturalized means a non-native species has successfully sustained a population. That means invasive species can be both wild and naturalized. And, more important, that not all wild fish are native.
There is a long history of stocking non-native fish in the United States. Brown trout, a European species, were introduced in the late 1800s. Sylvan Lake in Montana is known for golden trout, a species native to California. There is no competition between native and non-native fish in the lake, but there is elsewhere. Critics advocate for more stringent regulations that only allow non-native species to be stocked in places without a native population and, when possible, to stock native species in their natural habitat. This can be tricky, since a species’ genetics can differ from one river to the next. For example, a strain of Alaskan chinook salmon would not necessarily thrive, or even survive, in a Washington river that’s home to the same species.
Many government agencies and non-profits are paying attention to that detail. In Rhode Island, advocacy groups are working to reduce instances of stocking hatchery-raised brook trout in streams containing native brookies. In 2010, Trout Unlimited announced that its chapters were no longer permitted to assist state agencies stocking hatchery fish in areas with existing native populations. And in Arizona, several species of native fish are prohibited by law to chase or catch. “There is a time and a place for hatchery fish, but not on top of wild or native fish,” Wood says.
Wood disagrees with Thompson and others about the single, most important threat to fish populations: Thompson says it’s non-native species; Wood says climate change. But scientists aren’t sure exactly what the impacts of climate change will look like. Increased air and water temperatures, drought and decreased groundwater supplies will test the resilience of wild populations and their concrete counterparts. Without large quantities of clean water, hatcheries could be left with dry tanks, or, Trushenski says, hatcheries might become the only saving grace for fish affected by drought or extreme weather events.
White, the retired biologist who runs a continuing education program through the University of Wisconsin, says the focus on hatcheries diverts attention from what he sees as the real problem: how logging, agriculture and infrastructure development have changed the physical makeup of rivers and streams, a change that can leave fish more vulnerable to predation. “The mistake with hatcheries was that they were managing fish, not the people who were causing the problem,” White says.
Roman Crumpton, deputy project leader at Bears Bluff National Fish Hatchery in South Carolina, which is raising red drum in saltwater ponds, is also concerned about habitat. “You can’t throw a fish in a mud puddle and expect it to live,” he says.
Some experts say habitat restoration can grow wild populations to the point where hatchery fish are no longer necessary. Bears Bluff partners with local organizations to build oyster-shell reefs that aim to restore coastal habitats. The reefs attract shrimp and crabs, which provide food for the red drum. And the reefs dissipate wave energy, creating marshes that provide habitat for birds and other wildlife.
While Crumpton’s conservation project is at the macro scale, Bryan Decker, manager of the Quinebaug Valley State Hatchery in Connecticut, is looking at the micro. Fish farming has been criticized for its reliance on baitfish, which require considerable energy to raise and whose populations are declining. At a conference devoted to hatchery fish nutrition, Decker learned about pellet suppliers incorporating animal byproducts into the feed instead of baitfish. The fish at Quinebaug eat 1.5 tons of feed a day — an annual expense of $280,000.
Some anglers who grew up following a hatchery truck can attest to the awe that comes with hooking their first native fish. Is catching a hatchery-raised fish an inferior experience? For some, perhaps. For others, a trout is a trout is a trout. And without derbies and afternoons spent fishing stocked rivers, some of today’s anglers might never have picked up rods as kids.
Anglers are a passionate bunch. Add money and a little science to the sport, and things can get hot and murky. When author Anders Halverson was conducting research for An Entirely Synthetic Fish, he noted that 19th century propagators of non-native species, as well as people fighting for the restoration of native fish today, were positive they were right.
“A little humility goes a long way when it comes to questions of tinkering with nature,” Wood says.