Points North: Let’s Hear It for Hatcheries

Rainbow Trout
Rainbow Trout

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When you catch a fish, do you ever think about its origins? It might have been naturally spawned where you caught it or reared in a hatchery hundreds of miles away. Even if the fish was naturally produced, its species may have been introduced to the watershed—possibly so long ago that its presence now is taken for granted. If so, a hatchery likely played a role in its introduction.

Fish hatcheries often get a bad rap because they have been used to introduce and maintain nonnative fish populations in many waters. Even fish managers may complain that only a small percentage of fish stocked from hatcheries are eventually caught by anglers. Despite such criticisms, hatcheries play a vital role in sustaining the nation’s fisheries—and the communities and economies they support.

The Fall/Winter 2011 issue of Eddies magazine, published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, highlights the role America’s 71 national fish hatcheries play in restoring fisheries, preserving endangered and threatened species, and supporting recreational fishing. A new federal report on the economic value of fisheries conservation finds every dollar spent in the National Fisheries Program has a $28 return on investment. The program’s total economic impact is estimated to be $3.6 billion annually.

The national hatchery system has been around for 141 years and includes facilities across the U.S. from Alaska to Florida. They are used for everything from raising salmon for stocking to preserving some of the few remaining specimens of critically endangered river mussels. Federal hatcheries play a key role in restoring fisheries devastated by overfishing, invasive species and habitat degradation.

Consider the Great Lakes, where overfishing and the invasive sea lamprey had nearly wiped out lake trout by the 1950s. The development of lamprey control methods and the cessation of commercial fishing during the 1960s allowed fish biologists to begin working on lake trout recovery. Using brood stock native to the Great Lakes, lake trout were reared in four national fish hatcheries, including a Lake Superior facility at Iron River, Wisconsin.

By 1995, lake trout recovered to the point that stocking was no longer necessary in most of Lake Superior. Recovery has come more slowly to the other Great Lakes, although biologists are hopeful for Lake Huron, where natural reproduction accounts for about half of the adult lake trout population. The Iron River Hatchery is now devoted to other Great Lakes fish population recovery efforts. Native “coaster” brook trout and lake sturgeon are raised there.

Elsewhere in the country, federal hatcheries played a key role in restoration of striped bass along the Atlantic Seaboard and the Gulf Coast. In the Southwest, federal hatcheries produce rainbow, brown and brook trout for recreational fisheries, but also house the brood stock for native Apache trout. Restoring the natives to their original habitat in Arizona’s White Mountains is a goal of federal, tribal and state biologists.

From California to Washington State, federal hatcheries pump out millions of Pacific salmon and steelhead to augment greatly diminished natural populations. In northern California’s Sacramento River alone, salmon fishing is valued at over $100 million annually. Throughout the Pacific Northwest, salmon are stocked to provide tribal subsistence fisheries. Nationally, fish populations managed for subsistence are valued at $300 million.

This figure is dwarfed by economic activity resulting from recreational fishing associated with national hatchery stocking programs. Anglers spend 13.5 million days in pursuit of fish stocked by federal hatcheries. All this fishing generates $554 million in retail sales and $903 million of industrial output, as well as 8,000 jobs worth $256 million in wages. It also returns $37 million in federal tax revenues and $35 million in local taxes.

While the National Fish Hatchery System makes substantial contributions to the ongoing health of America’s fisheries, plenty of challenges lie ahead. Fish populations continue to suffer from habitat loss, competition with nonnative species and other environmental factors. Some of these fish species have little recreational or commercial value, but nevertheless are important components of aquatic ecosystems.

In the wake of drought and disastrous wildfires last year, biologists captured rare species to hold in refugia at hatcheries. Most are fish you’ve never heard of, such as the Little Colorado spinedace, the bluehead sucker, the Pecos bluntnose and the Chihuahua chub. In Texas, some of the species rescued from drought aren’t even fish, including the Texas blind salamander, the Comal Springs riffle beetle, Texas wild rice and the Peck’s cave amphipod. Providing refugia for species found only in localized ecosystems is a priority for hatcheries located in the nation’s arid regions.

Room for improvement also exists within the hatchery system. Some environmentalists criticize the stocking of nonnative fish for recreational purposes. Examples are rainbow trout, natives of the Pacific West, and brown trout, native to Europe. Both species are routinely raised and stocked in coldwater streams and lakes across the country. In their defense, rainbows and browns are often stocked in degraded and altered habitat where native species no longer thrive.

In the Pacific Northwest, critics say the federal government relies on hatchery production rather than habitat restoration to bolster salmon runs. Recently, fishing-oriented environmental groups sued the federal government and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe over their plans to build a new hatchery on the Elwha River after the removal of two dams allowed salmon access to 90 miles of historic spawning habitat within Olympic National Park. Environmentalists are concerned the introduction of hatchery fish will greatly hamper the recovery of wild, self-sustaining salmon runs.

The proposed Elwha Hatchery probably is a bad idea, especially if it is intended to simply produce generic salmon for harvest rather than using wild brood stock in an effort to restore wild runs. But it would be unfair to judge the entire National Fish Hatchery System based upon this one facility. Hatcheries are not a panacea for all fish management issues, but it is difficult to imagine how we would sustain our fisheries without them.

Airdate: March 9, 2012

Photo courtesy of the Bridge Family via Flickr.

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