The problems with stocked fish
Last week, I ended with, "There are significant biological, economic, and social issues associated with stocking fish" but did not dig much deeper - that is for this week. I know I did not paint the greatest picture of the role of stocking last week but there are good reasons to stock fish. And there are some very good reasons not to stock fish or maybe better put, not to become dependent upon stocked fish which I think is the real issue with stocking.
I will treat the biological, economic, and social impacts of stocking rather quickly to save time for a case study that highlights all of these.
There are many biological issues associated with stocking fishes, not the least of which is that quite often, stocking does little more than cover up issues. In addition to the very non-sustainable nature of stocking, there are potential issues of genetic dilution, impacts on native species, effect on food webs, and other biological impacts. Throughout the World, this has lead to a homogenization of freshwater fauna where our stocking of fishes and other management strategies have lead to homogenization of aquatic biota around the world. Homogenization occurs as a result of stocking - species like Largemouth Bass, Rainbow Trout, and others become globally ubiquitous, often at the expense of rare, native species that they consume, out-compete, and replace.
A more full exploration of the biological impacts of hatchery fish is a post for another day...
In general, the issue is that the return on investment is rarely there, particularly when you consider the long-term costs. Stocking is rather expensive. It is not cheap to spawn, grow, and then truck fish to where they are eventually stocked. And then to do it year after year with no end in sight. This may well be my bias but I am not traveling to fish for stocked fish. I have traveled to catch a Cutthroat Trout subspecies or even naturalized Brown or Rainbow Trout but I am not becoming a tourist angler for hatchery fish. This is a bit simplistic but you could spend money on habitat and water quality restoration or you could spend money - seemingly forever - to stock fish. Stocking fish in perpetuity is the definition of unsustainable fisheries management.
The social impacts are certainly the hardest to quantify but, boy, can I say from experience, these impacts can be ugly. I have watched the caravan following the stocking truck and have witnessed some deplorable behavior in the competition for stocked trout. I have witnessed parents yelling at their kids - and then kids crying - at a youth fishing event because the kid failed to catch a trout in a hatchery pond. I have seen anglers that view it as their "God-given" right to catch and harvest these synthetic fishes. I have seen resource agencies and their fishing license buyers become addicted, for lack of a better word, to stocked fish when better, more sustainable options exist. Once you start stocking fish, how do you stop? How do you break the circle?
Bennett Springs Trout Park (Source: Missouri Department of Conservation)
I will tell the tale, at least my dated version of the story, of West Virginia's addiction to stocked fish. But before I get too far into this, let us not pretend Wisconsin is without fault. Just get online and look at what has happened when Wisconsin had considered stocking fewer Chinooks into Lake Michigan despite evidence that a crash similar to what has happened in Lake Huron is likely. We know that most Chinook caught in the Big Lake are wild fish from Michigan, not stocked fish, so the return on investment is not spectacular. (Read the previous post on the place for stocked fish for these stories.) The result - Wisconsin stocked more - not fewer - Chinook, largely to make the charter boat captains happy. They have long had an outsized voice in the management of Lake Michigan. Quite simply, money talks and it is a large, important industry for Lake Michigan coastal cities. A previous review of stocking fishing in Wisconsin found that many stocking are "politically motivated" and let's face it, little good comes from know-little politicians making biological decisions for which they have no training or experience.
Stocking does not have to be a problem. I can tell all kinds of tales of how stocking has created self-sustaining wild fisheries of social and economic importance. Now almost all of these stories are not without issue. Brown Trout fisheries in Wisconsin have had undeniable biological impacts on native Brook Trout (Invasive species is a loaded term). Stocking has produced some of the World's great fisheries, for better and worse.
The West Virginia Example
Instead of a more straight-forward narrative, I have a little story to tell around a project on West Virginia's Shavers Fork I was involved in what seems like a lifetime ago. A bit of geography first. The Shavers Fork begins high on Cheat Mountain, West Virginia's second highest point. Cheat Mountain is part of the Allegheny Mountains, the easternmost range of the Appalachian Mountains. Pocahontas County is West Virginia's Birthplace of Rivers and a mid-continental divide where the Cherry River, Cranberry River, Elk River, Gauley River, Greenbrier River, Tygart Valley River, Williams River, and Shavers Fork of the Cheat River all originate. The Shavers and Black Forks come together near Parsons, West Virginia to form the Cheat River which eventually confluences with the Monongahela River, one of Pittsburgh's "Three Rivers". After the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers confluence, they form the Ohio River. That is your geography lesson for today.
I only spend the time to talk geography as location is pretty central to this story for a number of reasons. The Appalachians - like pretty much everywhere - have a number of environmental stressors unique to their geography. The Appalachians are rugged which makes scratching out a living here pretty tough (save your hillbilly jokes) and agriculture is very localized. However, acidity - acid precipitation and, in places, acid mine drainage, are significant issues. On Cheat Mountain, rivers like the Elk - in my experiences, West Virginia's premier trout river - have karst geology and limestone springs and rivers like the Shavers Fork, have geology that is not so forgiving. Shavers headwaters flow largely through shale bedrock and spruce forest, not a recipe for a well buffered stream. So the answer is limestone sand mitigation.
Limestone sand, like in the image above, is used to neutralize acid deposition and have allowed trout to survive in the Shavers Fork and some of its tributaries. Interestingly, limestone sand was first used to make it so trout could be stocked in Shavers Fork and have a chance of surviving. Otherwise in most years spring snow melt was so acidic that stocked trout had almost no chance of survival. So fish stocked in March, April, and that elevation, even into May might be lost due to an episodic acid event that lowered the pH and mobilized toxic aluminum ions. Limestone sand was hugely successful in not only allowing stocked fish to survive but eventually it allowed native Brook Trout and naturalized Brown, and Rainbow Trout to spawn and survive. But trout were still stocked.
West Virginians LOVES their stocked trout. Honestly, it is like nothing else I have ever witnessed. I sought out fisheries that were not stocked and there were and I am sure still are some great wild trout fisheries in West Virginia. I will put the Elk River up against any better known Pennsylvania trout fishery. A number of backcountry opportunities like Seneca Creek, Shavers Fork, Dogway Fork, and others provide unique opportunities for native and naturalized trout. That said, West Virginia LOVES their stocked trout. "Back in the day", you could call the hotline to hear not only where trout were stocked but where they were going to be stocked. And I see that things have not changed that much - see "Gold Rush" and the advertising around stocking 25,000 Tiger Trout (Brook x Brown trout). And maybe they know something that I do not and people do travel to catch stocked fish. After all, I am sure they have better data on license buyers, where they are from, and why they buy licenses than I do. I never understood "banana trout" - Pennsylvania, you are not better calling them "Palominos" - but others seemed to love them. I am not the average trout angler, something I am well aware of.
What I understand - but do not have first-hand knowledge of - West Virginia still loves their stocked trout but they have also gotten better at not stocking the crap out of everywhere. They certainly have not adopted the "Montana model" or even the Wisconsin one, but they have gotten better. Trout Unlimited and others have invested in the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture (EBTJV) and the Potomac headwaters have improved greatly. This speaks a bit to the odd dichotomy in West Virginia. While they love their stocked trout, "natives", West Virginia speak for Brook Trout are valued above all else. The Potomac headwaters have been improved by habitat restoration, removal of fish passage barriers, riparian zone management, improved agriculture and grazing (the Potomac is in the Ridge and Valley province, not the Appalachians), and other techniques. This restoration effort has made the watershed more sustainable and a model for other watersheds.
Back to Shavers Fork - all of this is getting me there - trust me. Our lab (Petty lab) sampled the Shavers Fork and its tributaries' trout populations, their movements, genetics, fish passage, habitats, thermal regimes, and more as a preliminary study to better understand the decline of the Shavers Fork. The Shavers Fork was once one of the East's premier destinations and the home of the Cheat Mountain Club, a club once the destination of John Burroughs, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and other notable visitors (CMC history). However, the railroad, logging, and some coal mining in the watershed along with more recent stressors like roads and acid precipitation; the Shavers Fork had seen better days. The river and its tributaries still held trout but the fishery was not what it had been. Restoration of the main stem, particularly narrowing and deepening the channel where it was modified by the railroad, historic logging, and flooding was the goal. And tributaries, where most of Shaver's Fork Brook Trout are produced, were reconnected to the mainstem as part of this restoration. And several of the tributaries were treated with limestone sand which has increased the pH of those streams and the Shavers' mainstem, promoting trout survival largely by buffering against the effect of toxic heavy metals that are soluble at lower pH values.
Our lab's studies demonstrated the importance of connectivity, how Brook Trout genetics were "more native" the further you ventured from roads and the railroad - convenient stocking corridors, habitat use and Brook Trout dependence upon groundwater inputs, and other things. Together these findings were used to help direct the restoration of the watershed. Today, the river is still stocked - it is REALLY hard to cease stocking - but it is not stocked above Beaver Creek and the upper dozen or so miles of Shavers Fork and its tributaries are wild trout fisheries in a backcountry setting. Now, I would love to see stocking moved downstream another 10 miles or so but I know in West Virginia the restoration and catch and release regulation was a pretty significant win for conservation.
West Virginia is not going to ween itself of stocked trout anytime soon but hopefully they continue to make some strides toward more wild trout fisheries as they have in Shavers Fork, the Potomac headwaters, and a number of other places. I have some faith - after all, a number of good friends are putting in a lot of good work. Stocked trout are expensive, unsustainable, and cause a number of biological and social issues. They are a solution to many fewer fisheries problems than anglers, politicians, and sometimes, resource agencies think. Again, if stocking were the solution, don't you think our problems would be solved by now?
How about Wisconsin?
Twenty plus years ago in West Virginia, the 'answer' to the poor Largemouth Bass fishing on the Ohio River was to stock bass. Needless to say, it was not the answer. The river - mostly a shipping canal hemmed in by a narrow valley - lacked the habitat to support much of a bass fishery. Today, the 'answer' to the Walleye problem in Wisconsin is the Walleye Initiative, basically stocking a bunch of Walleye. I expect it to work about as well as the stocking of year-old bass did on the Ohio River. And as mentioned above, go find the chaos online over Wisconsin prioritizing native Lake Trout over non-indigenous Pacific salmonids.
Wisconsin is not immune to the biologic, social, and economic issues associated with stocking fish. We have been better than most states but far from perfect. Wisconsin's wild trout fisheries are something that we can not take for granted. It was not that long ago that Wisconsin stocked a lot more fish - even into streams that today have some of the highest densities of trout anywhere. We spent our efforts - and our trout stamp dollars - to improve trout habitat and water quality. Trout Unlimited and other conservation groups spent the time, money, and effort improving streams, and yes, "wild stocked" trout were part of that restoration. It is an investment that has paid massive dividends.