“The Cost of Trout Fishing,” a recent op-ed piece by Douglas Thompson in the New York Times, included several inaccurate statements and fundamental misunderstandings of fisheries management and aquaculture. As fisheries research and management professionals, the American Fisheries Society would like to set the record straight. Native trout and our aquatic systems in general have been subjected to a wide variety of environmental degradations over the past two centuries or more. Widespread timber cutting, intense mining, dam construction, industrial pollution and many other human activities, not fishing pressure as suggested by Mr. Thompson, resulted in greatly reduced fish populations, including trout, throughout the U.S. Indeed, only through strong water quality laws and other actions, in many cases advocated for by anglers, have many of our rivers, streams and lakes recovered. Further, anglers working with other conservationists have helped to ensure our waters can sustain trout populations and fishing.
Thompson suggests that hatchery fish create more problems than they address. Natural resource agencies strategically stock fish to compensate for the inability of impaired ecosystems, especially in urban areas, to support self-sustaining fish assemblages. In the U.S., approximately 1.75 billion fish of all species are stocked annually to counter the effects of habitat loss, harvest pressure, and other stressors affecting fish and fishing opportunities. Regarding trout specifically, if wild populations are strong and self-sustaining, they are generally not stocked; for streams where populations are dwindling or absent, resource managers weigh costs and benefits before approving a stocking program.
Although some fish are raised to a catchable size prior to release, nationwide the majority of fish are stocked as juveniles at a very small size. Collectively, stocked fish weigh just over 44 million pounds annually meaning that the average size of the fish at release is less than half an ounce—equivalent to about 20 goldfish crackers. These fish grow to support recreational fisheries that help drive the U.S. economy and provide a means for an increasingly disconnected population to become reacquainted with nature. There are approximately 60 million U.S. anglers—more people than play golf or tennis combined—and anglers contribute $62 billion dollars annually to the gross domestic product (GDP), generate $115 billion in total economic output, and support more than 828,000 jobs. They also generate an additional $15 billion in state and federal taxes, a portion of which goes back into sport fish restoration. It has been estimated that hatchery fish support about half of this economic activity.
Another concern suggested by Mr. Thompson is that hatchery production is supported by pellet feed derived from fish and that these fish populations are being devastated by the use of fish meal and oil. In fact, “reduction” fisheries—the ones that give us fish meal and oil—are some of the most carefully and aggressively managed in the world and are actually expected to support modest growth in the future. Advances in fish nutrition have allowed soy, wheat, corn, and agricultural byproducts to replace fish meal and oil in most fish feeds. In 2000, trout and salmon diets typically contained 30-40% fish meal and 15-25% fish oil; by 2010, estimated fish meal and oil inclusions were down to 17-25% and 8-15%. By 2022, half of the fish meal and oil will come from improved processing of seafood waste, and not wild fish. What’s more, fish are strikingly efficient at turning feed to flesh. Terrestrial animals consume 2-8 pounds of feed or more for every pound of weight gained. For fish, it is routinely near 1 to 1, meaning that a vast majority of the feed going into a hatchery comes out “on the fin,” not as waste.
Fish hatcheries are strictly regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in accordance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). NPDES limits protect the quality of public waters, and hatchery effluents are subject to monitoring and aggressive enforcement of the permit’s conditions. To comply, hatcheries direct effluents through on-site wastewater treatment systems. Of more than 400 “hatchery” records in the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online database, only 7—less than 2%—are currently in violation of their permits. Fish hatchery contributions are dwarfed by urban and agricultural sprawl, confined animal feeding operations, or municipal wastewater discharges.
Hatchery operations must also comply with rigorous U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight if they use any drugs in the course of fish production. Drugs are not approved for use until proven safe to the environment, safe to fish, and safe to people who might eat the fish. Regulatory authorities take a highly precautionary approach to such evaluations. In fact, the most common water treatments applied in hatcheries are low doses of hydrogen peroxide (a household antiseptic) and chloramine (the most common disinfectant for US drinking water). As with nutrient discharges, the amount of these innocuous hatchery effluents is minor compared to pharmaceutical and personal care products that enter our Nation’s waters via municipal and agricultural wastewater discharges.
Fish stocked to bolster wild populations boast pedigrees to match that intent, and spawning in the hatchery is carefully managed to maintain the genetic integrity of the wild population. Some “conservation” hatcheries mimic natural conditions to better prepare fish for success in the wild. For fish whose only destiny is the creel, breeding programs are somewhat relaxed, but are hardly a haphazard mingling of genes. In some cases, hatchery fish are sterilized to prevent reproduction in the wild. In other cases, hatchery fish are managed to ensure that they are never on the same spawning grounds as wild fish at the same time. Hatcheries save, not squander, biodiversity. Redfish Lake Sockeye Salmon, for example, are slowly coming back from the brink of extinction because hatcheries managed to rescue the few remaining individuals, preserving the species as well as their genetic diversity. Recovery of Lake Trout—considered self-sustaining in Lake Superior and on-track in Lake Huron—is also attributable, in part, to hatchery support.
Hatcheries are managed based on the best social, economic, ecological, and other scientific information, but they are not a one-size-fits-all solution to fisheries conservation. Some past stocking programs have proven ill-advised and ineffective. The most effective management strategies incorporate all three “Hs”—harvest control, habitat protection or improvement, and hatchery supplementation. The American Fisheries Society has championed that approach and the use of sound science, holding forums every decade to refine recommendations for the best use of hatchery-origin fish in natural resource management. These issues are important and we encourage readers to learn more. The American Fisheries Society and the expertise of our membership are excellent places to start. Our collective efforts will succeed if we focus on the greatest threats to wild trout, namely habitat loss.
Douglas J. Austen Ph.D.
Executive Director, American Fisheries Society
The American Fisheries Society is the world’s oldest and largest professional society of fisheries scientists and is dedicated to strengthening the fisheries profession, advancing fisheries science, and conserving fisheries resources.