NFC's Position on Hatcheries
Bob Mallard - National Vice Chair
Native Fish Coalition (NFC) is frequently asked what our position on "hatcheries" is. This is a broad and complicated question requiring multiple and detailed answers and explanations.
While NFC does not support the use of hatcheries to supply fish for recreational fishing, we do not actively oppose them. We take this position for economic reasons: These hatcheries divert funds from things such as habitat work, reclamation, restoration, land-acquisition, law-enforcement, and information and education.
Another problem with hatcheries is that they are often a source of pollution as fish excrement and tissue as well as uneaten food is flushed into streams along with the wastewater. Hatchery effluent is also usually very low in oxygen due to the crowded conditions.
And of course stocked fish end up on top of wild fish creating a whole set of other problems including the introduction of diseases, genetic swamping, hybridization, the establishment of nonnative and often invasive fish populations, spawning disruption, competition for food and space, etc.
And as we all know hatcheries are used to try to offset angler exploitation in many cases and in place of regulations that would protect fish and allow for self-sustaining fish populations. Consider the commonly used term "supplemental stocking" -- it is exactly what it says, "in addition to" and the assumption is "wild fish."
And while we are all avid trout anglers, NFC does not believe that we have to have trout everywhere. Plus we are a native-centric organization and a nonnative trout, which many stocked fish are, is no better or worse than a nonnative bass, pike, musky, etc. But to be fair and clear, some NFC members do fish for stocked trout -- myself included.
NFC does however support the use of hatcheries in support of the restoration of native fish where the long-term goal is to re-establish self-sustaining populations. One example is the ongoing work being done by Downeast Salmon Federation to bring back critically and officially endangered Atlantic salmon.
Other examples of so-called "Restoration Hatcheries" we support are those being used by federal and state government to restore Atlantic salmon, Arctic grayling, Apache trout, Gila trout, rare cutthroat subspecies such as greenback and Lahontan, etc.
NFC also supports the temporary use of hatcheries in support of water-specific native fish reclamation efforts. Two recent examples of this are the reclamation of Big Reed and Wadleigh Ponds in Maine to restore rare Arctic charr.
So-called "Gene-Banking" is another form of hatchery NFC supports. In these cases broodstock of specific strains or subspecies of fish that cannot be released into their historic water at this time for one reason or another are maintained in a hatchery. The goal is to preserve these fish in hope they can be reintroduced at a later date.
Examples of important Gene-Banking projects include the Connecticut River and Merrimack River strains of Atlantic salmon. While ongoing restoration efforts have been suspended due to poor returns, US Fish & Wildlife is maintaining the strain in the event that the situation on these rivers improves.
Maine is facing a similar situation regarding a pond-specific strain of rare Arctic charr from Bald Mountain Pond. Invasive smelt and lake trout introductions have imperiled the charr and at over 1,000-acres, the pond would be tough and very expensive to reclaim. Moving these fish to a hatchery could save the strain.
A recent buzz-term in the world of fish-husbandry is "Wild Hatcheries." Ask ten people what these are and you'll get ten different answers. The general concept is to raise fish in a more natural setting to create a less domesticated product. Some Wild Hatcheries are good, some are not so good.
While a Restoration Hatchery by definition and purpose, DSFs Peter Gray hatchery is a Wild Hatchery in practice as it uses untreated river water, dark tanks, and other more "natural" conditions which allow for, and in fact cause, some level of die-off that helps weed out the weak. The idea is to raise a more "athletic" fish that has a better chance of surviving in the wild than those being raised using traditional methods.
Some Wild Hatcheries are used to create a "better product" in support of angling. We do not support, nor oppose, this type of hatchery as it's just another form of stocking for recreational angling. It also raises the question as to why we are not working to establish truly self-sustaining populations via habitat work and tackle and creel restrictions.
One problem with Wild Hatcheries is that while the broodstock usually comes from the wild and is genetically superior to your typical inbred and heavily domesticated hatchery broodstock and less likely to carry diseases or parasites, unlike what is being done at DSF they don't always address the second half of the equation -- rearing. What happens to a trout after it is born is as important as what happens before it is born...
In many cases the eggs and fish in Wild Hatchery are still nurtured more in a than they would be in the wild allowing weak specimens to survive and be released into the wild. While managers are trying to create a "superior" product, they can't completely overlook yields for financial reasons. The result is often a fish that is better than your average hatchery fish, but not as good as a truly wild fish.
Another issue is diet -- few if any Wild Hatcheries use a natural food source as it is simply too expensive and difficult to maintain. What long-term impact this has on the fish is not fully understood. And like all hatchery fish they are raised in crowded quarters and not free to swim like truly wild fish are. Calling any hatchery fish "wild" is misleading and in some cases very misleading.
Hatcheries play an important role in regard to the preservation and restoration of native fish. Without them many native fish populations would have been lost, and many more would be lost in the future.
Environmentally hatcheries are better today than they were just a decade ago, and far better than they were a generation ago. Closed systems, effluent filtration, better food, etc., have made them less of an impact than they once were. But many are still a problem.
As a recreational tool however hatcheries have become a crutch and a major cost to the typical state F&G agency. Call them what we want, they are all still hatcheries raising stocked not wild fish for fishing purposes...