What if we stopped stocking fish?
562,310,117, can you guess what this number is? If you guessed how many catchable fish (fish >5”) were stocked in freshwater in 2018 the United States of America last year, you’d be almost correct. This number excludes the states Wisconsin, Nevada, Rhode Island, Indiana, Delaware, Colorado, and California. You might be asking yourself, Greg, why are you missing 7 states from your count? The answer is simple, I was either forced to pay an absurd amount for the records (I refuse to pay for a report that is funded by tax payer dollars) or the reports were so meticulously laid out, it would have taken weeks if not months to extract the information. But, I think 43 states and half a billion fish was enough to get my point across. Not to mention, I only included fish greater than 5”, take Oklahoma, who stocked 200,000 freshwater fish over 5” in 2018. If I were including all fish stocked, Oklahoma would have stocked 15.5 million fish. So keep in mind, my half a billion fish from 43 states is many times below the actual number of total fish stocked. When is enough enough? What are we doing to our ecosystems? How much money is this costing us? And, ultimately, what would happen if we stopped stocking fish?
More than half a billion fish, I conservatively averaged fish stocked/state and it came out to be 13 million. So, being conservative in my estimate, in 2018 there were roughly 650-800 million fish above 5” stocked in US freshwaters. Why use 5”? I call them catchable trout to emphasize the connection between angler and the stocking programs. What is the point of stocking programs? At one time in my life I thought they were implemented to help fisheries, but I’m quickly learning they are more frequently here to help anglers. At what point can we step back and say enough is enough. I’m not saying all stocking programs are bad, they certainly are not. For example, the Presumpscot River in Maine is an outlet of Sebago lake and is dammed every few miles until it reaches the ocean. The river gets extremely warm in the summer and the few lakes that form along the river are fairly shallow and can’t house trout and salmon throughout the summer months. The water is absolutely pristine, gin clear, an angler’s dream as far as I’m concerned. Fish are stocked here heavily in the spring and fall, and anglers come from far and wide to catch a river trout in an area that is otherwise void of such opportunity (Southern Maine has few native trout or salmon rivers). This program gives old, young, experienced, and novice anglers a unique opportunity and I am all for this stocking program. Now for the bad example. Maine stocks 500-1000 11-12” brook trout in the Androscoggin River in Lisbon yearly. The Androscoggin River in Lisbon is a fantastic pike fishery. The program should be renamed pike feeder program. This stocking practice makes little to no sense and there are other Maine stocking programs with similar nonsensible events, such as stocking the Mousam River in Kennebunk in late May, when schoolie stripers are in thick. Now, if the fisheries programs are designed to feed the stripers and pike, then I wish they would just say that. Remember, this is just a Maine example, this kind of illogical stocking is happening in every state. Stocking programs are becoming more directed at pleasing the angler, not the ecosystem, not the native fish populations existent in our rivers and lakes.
So, when is enough enough? If we cut out all the senseless stocking, are we still stocking 500 million fish? What about our river systems? Are we damaging our own ecosystems, are we helping? Most of the stocked fish of those +500 million were around 10-12”. A 12” trout weighs an estimated average of 10oz (NY DEC). So, let’s just be conservative and say if the average weight of the 500 million +5” fish was 6oz (extremely conservative), we would be adding 18,750,000 million pounds of organic matter to our river systems. What do you think adding (and this is a conservative estimate) almost 20 million pounds of organic matter to a landscape can do? There have been no studies that I’ve found that look at the overall impacts of fish stocking on a broad scale, so we don’t even really know what it is we are doing. We put all these fish in rivers and lakes, what happens to them? Are the extra nitrogen and phosphorous inputs adding to algal blooms or are they impacting aquatic insect abundance? Are the extra 20 – 50 million pounds of fish that weren’t in our rivers and lakes before impacting our ecosystems broadly, not just our aquatic ecosystems? We just really don’t have enough information to know and that alone should be enough to slow things down or at least raise a few red flags. Can this process be sustained for 100 more years? 1000? I think not and stocking programs are becoming (or already are) a pillar rather than a supplement.
If we want to keep our stocking programs going for 1000 years, what is the cost? A ton of states seemingly bragged about how many fish they stocked in a given year, yet none of them talked about the cost of any given program. In fact, no state program discussed how much money it takes to grow 1 brook, rainbow, or brown trout to 12”. How much does it cost and why are state programs hiding this? The best estimate I could get was from a website called Mother Earth News (reliability is questionable). They estimate each pound of rainbow trout cost roughly 60 cents to raise. In 2016, George Smith, love him or hate him, suggested the stocked fish you catch here in Maine might cost upwards of $50 after configuring in multiple factors. The previous commissioner of DIFW, Chandler Woodcock, suggested that each hatchery produced fish has an average cost of $8/pound. As George Smith points out, that means in 2016 the state spent over 3 million dollars of tax-payer money stocking fish and as I point out, in places like the pike infested waters of the Androscoggin River in Lisbon. Again, this is not a Maine phenomenon, it is happening all over the country. The confusion over fish stocking prices resonates throughout the land. I’m 100% positive the answer to how much stocking programs for each district, state, or region exist, I just wish they were more accessible for the public, seeing as we are really the ones paying for it. In some states, like Colorado, there have been economic cost benefit analysis regarding fish stocking programs. A particularly impressive economic analysis was done by D Johnson and R Walsh in 1987 on the Blue Mesa Reservoir (you can find the reports link below). Why can’t this be done for all major stocking programs? Are we spending our money wisely?
So, we’ve gone through the numbers, the hypotheticals, and then some, but what would happen to the anglers? Would there be any impact on the angling society if we stopped stocking fish for a year, what about 5 years? For the first year, I am guessing very little would change regarding angler participation. Maybe those anglers chasing stocking trucks would go less, but people would still go. According to the Fishing Industry Report 2019 by Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation and Outdoor Foundation, 38% of fly anglers went between 1-3 times to fly fish. If no stocking existed, you might lose a portion of this group. 34% went between 4-11 times, a portion of this might drop to the 1-3 time per year group. Stocking programs are unfortunately tied to economics. Any drop in angling participation to a governor or senator is seen as a loss in dollar signs. To me, it just might be the ease in pressure some over utilized fisheries need. Fisheries departments and state departments are undoubtedly worried that if they stop stocking rivers, anglers will stop fishing and stop spending money. In a state like Maine where fishing is an economic staple, both in the residential population and tourist population, it’s understandable why stocking is so prevalent. But would the impact to the fly-fishing community take a hit if we stopped stocking fish? I can’t speak for other states, but in Maine, I do NOT believe it would. The truth of the matter is, most people don’t fish to catch fish, they go to enjoy the serenity, the friendship, the peace and tranquility that is washed over you when standing in a river or drifting on a lake. Rather than stop fishing, what I anticipate would happen is that angler’s target species would change. Rather than targeting stocked trout on their outings, anglers would switch to whatever fishery dominated their local region, be it bass, pike, trout, salmon.
So, do I think we should stop stocking fish in our waters? No, I don’t. I think stocking fish provides unique opportunities for anglers in areas that are otherwise unfit for a fishery to even exist. Stocking programs spark inspiration in the youth, let’s face it, no kid wants to sit on the riverbank for 4 hours and catch nothing. I whole heartedly support stocking efforts. However, the point we’ve come to is overkill. It seems we’ve lost our way, stocking senseless locations, overstocking streams, even stocking over wild populations. We’ve lost our way and are in need of guidance. We are in the age of information, yet so little exists regarding our own stocking programs. It makes you wonder, why is that?