If We Know, Why Don't We Do?
Bob Mallard - National Vice Chair, Native Fish Coalition
Unfortunately, like the Saco, the Swift is one of the most beleaguered rivers in New England. Relegated to primarily a put-and-take fishery, it is more a swimming and sightseeing destination than a fishing destination.
Managed for general law fishing - unrestricted bait, 5-fish, no length limit; the Swift River sees more than its fair share of high-impact bait fishing and harvest. So much so that most of the river is now heavily stocked, and nearly devoid of wild fish except in its extreme headwaters.
Per New Hampshire Fish & Game (NHF&G), the Swift River received nearly 9,500 stocked trout in 2018 alone. It was stocked 5 times between May 21 and November 17. This included both 1- and 2-year fish, and while mostly brook trout, there were 1,400 nonnative brown trout stocked in the lower river as well.
Of the 9,500ish trout stocked in the Swift River in 2018, just short of 1,400 were “surplus,” or extra fish and not part of any so-called ”Management Plan.” In November, NHF&G dumped 1,000 homeless fingerling nonnative brown trout in the river. These fish would be virtually undetectable from wild fish due to their small size, 4” or so, and lack of fin-wear due to limited time in the cement confines of the hatchery.
According to stocking records I obtained from NHF&G, roughly 2,900 fish, all brook trout, were stocked in White Mountain National Forest. Per NHF&G, 300 of these were 2-year-old fish, likely larger than 12-inches. In fact, an extrapolation of total-weight divided by the number of fish indicates they averaged roughly 1.4 pounds per.
We know better, or at least we used to…
As most know, stocking is a band-aid, not a long-term solution. In fact, the only long-term impacts of stocking are negative. It is also a costly proposition, diverting much-needed funds away from things like habitat restoration that can yield long-term positive results. At a conservative estimate of $3.50 per fish, the annual Swift River stocking alone costs New Hampshire anglers roughly $35,000.
Thanks to the investigative efforts of some other wild native trout advocates, I came across a study done by NHF&G in regard to the Swift River. Some of the information presented was quite compelling. It shows that the powers that be understand the negative impacts of stocking, and specifically on the Swift River.
Below is an interesting quote that links angling “pressure”, really “harvest” as fishing in and of itself has been demonstrated not to be an issue, to a need to stock, hence the use of the term “warrants”:
“This author believes, however, that this figure for Sections II and III is an example of what a stream can be made to produce through stocking if pressure warrants it.”
And this quote that links pressure, again harvest, to a lack of wild fish:
“It has been previously shown that pressure is concentrated in Sections II and III and it will be shown later in this report that wild fish are abundant in other sections of this watershed.”
And this quote may be the most telling, and damning, of all. The inference is that wild fish are not being “properly managed”, and that the river could support more wild fish if managed accordingly:
“The author therefore believes that if wild fish in the watershed were properly managed and the pressure spread out the total yield of trout would increase considerably and Swift River would appear more favorable in this respect.”
This quote acknowledges the fact that stocked fish compete with wild fish for food, and successfully:
“…thus indicating that hatchery fish were able to compete successfully for food with native fish.”
And these comments are an admission that stocked fish don’t sty where you put them, and can end up where you don’t want them:
“Two phases of movements of planted fish were studied again this year, namely, movement within the study area and the exodus from the study area.”
“The season's average movement for brook trout was 0.53 miles upstream and 1.23 miles downstream…”
And this statement beckons the question, why are “natives”, referring to wild fish, found primarily in places anglers have to walk to get to? Could it be that general law management does not promote the conservation of wild fish?
“…even though anglers were reluctant to walk back to areas where natives are most abundant.”
This statement is an admission that wild trout are “scarce” where stocked fish are present, reason to reconsider the concept of “supplemental stocking,” or knowingly and deliberately stocking over wild fish which is not uncommon in New Hampshire:
“It was noted that when hatchery-reared legal brook trout were stocked in the upper sections of Swift River, wild brook trout were scarce in the stocked sections.?
And this comment seals the deal, and states that when stocking is suspended, the wild trout return:
“Hatchery fish are now stocked only below Rocky Gorge (a fair barrier) and it has been noted that wild fish are rapidly repopulating this upper section.”
There are even statements as to why this may be happening:
“Could this phenomenon be due to hatchery fish out-competing the smaller wild fish? Could it be due to the introduction of disease into a non-resistant population?”
The most amazing, and disappointing, thing about this study is that it was done in 1956, or over 60 years ago. How is it that we knew back then that stocking over wild fish was detrimental to wild native fish, yet we continue to do it today?
And this is what NHF&G says about its stocking practices. Let’s hope we can get to some science-based brook trout management sooner than later:
“You are correct. Historically, there has not been much science placed on our trout stocking allocation and methodologies with the exception of our Landlocked Salmon program. A lot of it has been socially or historically driven. We are in the process of trying to change to a more science based/water quality/biological approach through the development of a trout management plan.”