NEW LONDON, Conn. — WITH the long winter now behind us (I hope), I’m about to head out to the nearby Salmon River here in Connecticut to see what a season’s worth of ice has done to the place. Now that fishing season has arrived, the river no doubt will be crowded with newly stocked fish and wader-clad fishermen who share my passion for this sleek and beautiful creature. But my rod will be collecting dust at home. I reluctantly gave up fishing 10 years ago after I saw what a century of stocking nonnative fish was doing to the landscape I love.
Twenty-eight million Americans will buy freshwater fishing licenses this year. Eight million of them will be trout and salmon anglers. Native wild trout have mostly disappeared in the face of this immense fishing pressure. They have been replaced by nonnative hatchery fish and their river-born “wild” trout offspring. Nationwide, state and federal fisheries agencies dump some 130 million trout in lakes, rivers and streams each year. Although this stocking lures people outside, the hatcheries that produce these trout create environmental problems.
Trout aquaculture is heavily reliant on pellet feed. The federal and state hatchery production of some 28 million pounds of trout per year requires roughly 34 million pounds of feed. These pellets are derived from herring, menhaden and anchovies harvested from oceans in quantities that the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say are unsustainable. We are devastating populations of marine species simply to support a freshwater hobby.
If that’s not bad enough, hatcheries are major polluters. Each year, much of the roughly six million pounds of fish excrement, uneaten food and dead and decaying fish that I estimate are produced by these hatcheries leach nutrients into wastewater that is often then dumped untreated into the closest stream or river. This wastewater can also contain medicines and antibiotics used to limit diseases in crowded pens, and disinfectants that sterilize holding tanks. Ultimately, these hatcheries may be contributing to the proliferation of “dead zones” — biological wastelands created by excess nutrients — that are choking estuaries and coastal ecosystems downstream.
For more than a century, government stocking efforts and more recent well-intentioned but illegal introductions of fish by anglers have wreaked havoc on native trout and other fish species. Seven species of native trout are considered threatened and others have become extinct because of interbreeding and competition from nonnative trout and other game fish introduced into freshwater streams. Despite these problems, most trout stocked this year will be nonnative to the streams and rivers where they will be released.
Many of the fishermen who will revisit their favorite stream this spring are happy to release their quarry after hooking and reeling them in. Although catch-and-release might seem, logically, to help maintain high numbers of catchable fish, the science does not validate this practice. Survival rates of hatchery fish in the wild are very low, especially after hooking damage and exhaustion associated with repeated catch-and-release encounters.
Studies suggest that 75 to 80 percent of hatchery trout are gone soon after stocking. The fact that many states still routinely stock streams regulated as catch-and-release-only waters is a strong indication that catch-and-release does not ensure fish survival. Hatcheries are breeding fish that are poorly adapted to life in the wild. Even worse, these fish can pass on their undesirable traits to wild populations of native fish.
Although stocking trout is harmful, eating them is far better than eating native wild trout. When these native fish die, their genetic uniqueness dies, too. (Brook and lake trout are the only trout native to the entire Northeast, for instance; nonnatives like brown, rainbow and golden trout are also released into Northeast streams.) Unfortunately, many states set uniformly high catch limits that draw no distinction between native versus nonnative trout. Therefore, anglers need to hold themselves to a higher standard than the rules that govern their actions.
In the end, perhaps the most ethical approach for anglers would be to catch and consume nonnative wild and hatchery-produced game fish. Huge resources go into the production of farm-raised fish, after all, and at serious environmental costs. Conversely, it is more important than ever to protect wild populations of native fish with catch-and-release practices. Many states provide trout identification materials in their angler regulations. Establishing stricter limits and mandatory releases of native species whenever they are healthy enough to survive being hooked could help preserve the genetic integrity of aquatic environments.
If we continue to ignore the impact of hatchery fish on aquatic ecosystems, we will soon regret what has been lost.