Sunday, August 3, 2014


A few weeks ago, I attended a New York Marine Resources Advisory Council meeting.  Striped bass were on the agenda.  Quite a few anglers were in the audience, and a number of them chose to address the Council, to let them know that they were concerned about the steady decline of the bass population.

One older gentleman, who has been haunting the striper coast for a decade or two longer than I have, suggested that along with reducing harvest, fisheries managers should consider raising bass in hatcheries, so that there would be more for anglers to catch.

I didn’t say anything, but inside, I started to cringe.

It doesn’t really matter what the species is, or what coast you’re on.  When fish run into problems someone, somewhere, is going to talk about supplementing natural reproduction with hatchery fish.

Here on Long Island, out in the town of East Hampton, they wanted to open a winter flounder hatchery to augment that crashed.  The state Department of Environmental Conservation wisely kiboshed the idea.

Down in the Gulf of Mexico, hatcheries are an accepted means of augmenting numbers of red drum and speckled trout, to spare anglers from the burden of regulations needed to conserve a natural population when spawning success declines.

It sounds like a wonderful idea.  Replace—or at least supplement—natural reproduction with hatchery fish, and we won’t have to worry about such things as overfishing, biomass thresholds or the state of the spawning stock.  We can just keep killing a bunch of fish, and if they start to get scarce, we can just dump another load from the hatchery truck, just like folks dump trout into the warm and weedy (and generally unsuitable) ponds on Long Island, where most are caught by anglers before they can succumb to the conditions and die.

Hatchery fish could relieve us of our obligation to be responsible stewards of the resource and, after all, who doesn’t want to be relieved of responsibility?

We could go out and kill fish without guilt.

And that is, from a philosophical and ethical standpoint, why hatcheries are a bad thing.  Hatcheries represent a failure of fisheries management; they evidence the abandonment of the traditional concepts of stewardship in favor of the artificial production of what Ted Williams—my favorite conservation writer—refers to as “rubber fish.”

Hatchery fish are a poor substitute for native fish.  More than anything else, they remind us of what we have lost.

In fresh water, we have degraded so many waters through pollution, impoundment, taking out water for irrigation, introducing non-native species, “flood-control” projects, etc. that many native species can no longer successfully reproduce and compete in the lakes and rivers where they once thrived.  In such cases, where the damage is so severe that it is practically irreversible, hatcheries may represent the only opportunity to have anything to fish for at all.

In salt water, though, robust, wild-spawned fish are still generally the rule, and native fish stocks have not slipped below the point of no return.  There, hatcheries are the serpent in the garden, who whispers seductively in our ears, telling us that virtue and responsibility are not really needed; accept the hatcheries, and we can escape regulation and indulge our desire to kill ‘til the cooler is full.

So far—mostly—we’ve rejected such blandishments on the Atlantic.  They have had only a limited impact the Gulf.  However, on the Pacific coast, where impoundments, irrigation and overfishing have combined to destroy native fish populations for the better part of a century, hatcheries have long been a fact of life, pumping out many, many billions (yes, billions) of “rubber” trout and salmon.

Folks concerned with the resource have long criticized such programs for diluting genetic lines that had suited particular “runs” of salmon for their natal rivers, but now it appears that even using local broodstock is no substitute for natural reproduction.

That doesn’t matter in a strict put-and-take fishery, such as we find in many urban and suburban trout waters, because the man-made fish (usually rainbow trout) that are dumped into such troubled ponds and creeks aren’t expected to reproduce.  However, in a salt water situation—or in Pacific salmon rivers and healthy freshwater streams—hatchery fish will survive until spawning season, when they will compete with naturally spawned fish for spawning sites, mates and other resources.

In such situations, the reduced reproductive success of hatchery fish can impact the productivity of the stock.

The Oregon study said

Even before that study was completed, hatchery fish were recognized as a potential threat to wild stocks.  Early this year, a federal judge in Oregon decided that hatchery fish in the Sandy River posed a threat to endangered native salmon and steelhead, and limited their introduction.  Similar lawsuits have been brought elsewhere, with various degrees of success.

To date, most of the studies, and most of the lawsuits, related to hatchery fish have dealt with salmon and trout.  However, there is no reason to believe that other fish would be immune from similar effects.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, on the other hand, believes that stocking red drum is a good thing, saying that

However, it also notes that such stocking

Apparently there, as in too many fresh waters, stocking is merely a way to let people keep killing fish, and assuring that “harvest levels are sustained” without the need for burdensome regulations.

There’s no evidence that the Texas folks did a comprehensive study on the impact of the hatchery drum on the reproductive success of native fish.

Personally, I have no desire to catch “rubber stripers,” “rubber flounder” or “rubber” anything else.

Here on the coast, even our weaker stocks can be restored, with a little sacrifice and a lot of good management.  We don’t need stainless steel tanks and piped-in water.

We can still bring fish populations back the old-fashioned way—by giving fish a chance to do what they’ve done for millennia—producing young which have been tested by predators, prey and the ocean itself from the moment they left the egg behind.
We can still hold a bit of wildness in our hands every time we venture out to the shore, a creature of flesh and blood and bone that has proved its ability to survive the worst that nature can throw its way.

Something that brings us back a step closer to what we once were, and reminds us of what we traded away for the comforts and security of civilization.

We should never let hatcheries seduce us and take that away.

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