Fish hatchery study wins support at legislature
“We could help DIF&W reduce their hatchery costs. I believe their technology is outdated.”
Those were the words of Sebastian Belle, testifying in favor of LD 471, my bill that would create a Hatchery Commission to study DIF&W’s fish production facilities and issue recommendations next year. Representative Jared Golden sponsored my bill and delivered excellent testimony for it.
Don Kleiner of the Maine Professional Guides Association liked the idea of a Hatchery Commission but opposed the bill, asking that the Commission be delayed until the department completes its new fishery management plans. It seems to me that a careful examination of our hatcheries would be beneficial before those new plans are completed.
Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited testified “neither-for-nor-against” and offered good suggestions, including adding others to the planned membership of the Commission. “The primary mission of the Fisheries Division is not to give us fish to catch, but to manage the state’s wild and native fish wisely and provide angling opportunity where doing so does not conflict with the Department’s mandate to preserve, protect, and enhance the state’s fisheries resources,” testified Jeff.
“Unfortunately, hatcheries have not been terribly effective at restoring wild fish populations that have been lost to habitat damage, overharvest, introduction of non-native species, or other human impacts. Even worse, lake trout – introduced into Sebago Lake when angler demand was not satisfied by a landlocked salmon fishery decimated by habitat loss, development, and use of DDT – became self-sustaining and now present a significant challenge in the Department’s exemplary efforts to restore Sebago Lake as a wild, native salmon fishery. Other species stocked or transferred by the Department – rainbow trout, brown trout, rainbow smelts, smallmouth and largemouth bass – have had similar impacts in other waters,” reported Jeff.
He also joined me in noting that stocked fish do very little for our economy. Anglers do not come to Maine to catch hatchery fish. “Clients can get bass or stocked trout close to home,” he said. “But wild brook trout are special, and they have kept people coming back to places like Grants Camps, Libby’s Camps and Nahmakanta Lake Camps – to name just a few – for generations.”
Jeff made a great suggestion for broadening the mission of the Hatchery mission as follows (his suggested language is underlined): “That the commission shall study, assess and evaluate salmonid fish culture facilities in the State, their contribution to and impacts on conservation of the state’s wild salmonid resources, and the associated production and distribution capabilities, opportunities, needs and contributions to the economy of the State.” He questioned whether they department “has sufficient resources to support hatchery-based conservation for cold water fish.”
I was disappointed that the Sportsman’s of Alliance did not testify for the bill. SAM was a leader of the last Hatchery Commission, which worked for 4 ½ years and issued a great report with lots of recommendations in 2002. It was my privilege to serve on that commission, as SAM’s representative.
With hatchery brook trout costing about $5 each, the guy who chases after the hatchery truck and catches and keeps his daily limit of 5 fish, gets back the entire cost of his annual fishing license in one day of fishing. And when he comes back the next day and catches and keeps five more fish, you and I are paying for those fish.
If someone came into a restaurant, paid $25 for a meal, yet was also allowed to come back every day after that and get the same meal for free, that restaurant wouldn’t be in business very long. We need major changes in the way we grow, stock, and price hatchery fish.
In 1999, a Hatchery Commission was established and directed by the legislature to “assess and evaluate recreational salmonid fish production facilities in the State, set salmonid production goals at state-owned fish production facilities over the next 15 to 20- year planning horizon and ensure that these facilities comply with discharge license standards within three years.” I was privileged to serve on this Commission, which worked for four and a half years on a final report and list of recommendations, many of which have not been achieved.
The Commission offered recommendations for renovations and upgrades to IF&W’s hatcheries, and also proposed that the agency begin contracting for fish from private hatcheries.
The Commission recommended that hatchery production total 865,000 pounds of fish, with a species mix of 700,609 pounds of brook trout, 16,457 pounds of landlocked salmon, 60,125 pounds of rainbow trout, 77,622 pounds of brown trout, and 4,664 pounds of lake trout. The Commission also recommended that brown trout production not be increased and splake production be dramatically reduced. A few of us on the Commission recommended an end to the splake stocking program.
So, how has DIF&W done in achieving these recommendations? Not very well.
2015 Stocking Report
The 8 hatcheries of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife grew and stocked 1,211,141 fish (386,164 pounds of fish) in 2015. According to Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, hatchery-produced fish have cost an average of $8/pound over the last 10 years. That means the fish produced and stocked in 2016 cost a total of $3,089,312. On average, each stocked fish cost $2.50.
But that figure is grossly misleading. The budget of DIF&W’s Fisheries Division is roughly $4 million, so our stocked fishery is gobbling up 75 percent of the entire fisheries division budget. The remainder pays for everything else including fisheries biologists and fisheries management and research.
I estimate that the fisheries biologists spend 90 percent of their time on stocked fisheries, creating stocking plans, and managing and researching stocked fisheries. Given that the total fisheries division budget is about $4 million/year, the cost of each stocked fish would rise to about $3.50. But that’s not accurate either.
DIF&W has increased the stocking of larger fish, some of which spend two years in the hatchery, so these fish cost a lot more. I saw a report a few years ago that indicated these fish could cost more than $50, when the catch rate is included in the calculation.
Last session, Todd Langevin, DIF&W’s Superintendent of Hatcheries, presented an engineering study to the IFW Committee. The study was done by FishPro Inc. of Illinois and cost $140,784. The FishPro plan included adding a second deeper water intake at the Casco hatchery, expanding the Grand Lake Stream water supply and production capacity, and building a new hatchery. FishPro outlined four possibilities: expansions of 10%, 25%, 39%, and 114% in pounds of fish.
The Casco recommendations could cost as much as $963,000 and the Grand Lake Stream recommendations could cost as much as $2 million. The costs of a new hatchery were: For a 10% increase in production pounds of fish: $10,896,000, For a 25% increase in production pounds of fish: $19,695,000, For a 49% increase in production pounds of fish: $27,879,000, For a 124% increase in production pounds of fish: $90,603,500.
When the IFW Committee sought a recommendation from Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, he could not give them one. So they voted without any guidance from the agency, choosing to seek a $28 million bond issue, without a lot of discussion, but the vote seemed to be based on a desire to build a new hatchery, without seeking the improvements recommended for Casco and Grand Lake Stream.
It was not surprising that the Appropriations Committee rejected the $28 million hatchery bond issue. And not long after, as predicted by the study, the water supply at the Casco hatchery disappeared, and the hatchery closed. We also suffered a major fish kill at the Grand Lake Stream hatchery.
The department is seeking $4 million in its new budget, to fix and reopen the Casco hatchery and to make improvements at Grand Lake Stream. I am proposing that before that is done, we step back, take a comprehensive look at all the hatchery issues and problems, review the recommendations of the last Hatchery Commission, and then move forward.
For example, one thing I think we should check out is the hatchery that Poland Spring Bottling Company owns just north of Kingfield. DIF&W is already raising fish there, and the hatchery may have the potential for significant expansion.
Consider this story from 1935.
“The first of the new hatcheries, already under way at Gray… will have a capacity of 12,000,000 legal-sized brook trout annually. There will be seven miles of pools each 400 feet long and 35 feet wide… In addition, Maine will have the world’s largest hatchery for raising landlocked salmon, known as the Koka-jo Hatchery… They will produce 2,000,000 legal-sized salmon annually… This output of 31,000,000 fish a year represents quite an increase over 1928 in which year Maine’s 11 hatcheries produced only 2,000,000 fish.
In 1994, we lost a hatchery bond issue in referendum by less than 10,000 votes. That was devastating. But we didn’t give up, and in 2002, Maine voters endorsed a $7 million hatchery bond issue. A later bond issue added $2 million more. The agency issued a press release, after we won the $7 million bond, stating, “Funds from the bond will not only increase the number of fish raised in the state, but could give a boost to the state’s economy as well.” That turned out to be wrong.
Commissioner Danny Martin noted, “This is an important step forward in the revitalization of our fish hatchery system.” And he was right. But we didn’t increase the number of fish raised each year, and much of the money was spent to meet state water discharge standards, absolutely essential and something they’d ignored for many years. We also added oxygen and other improvements to all the hatcheries, and significantly improved and expanded the Emden Rearing Station.
While my testimony focuses on deficiencies in our state hatcheries, I want you to know that our hatcheries produce some beautiful fish. I admire the staff and their work. But we really need to take a close look at that work, review the recommendations of the last Hatchery Commission, and tackle some serious problems, including with brook trout and brown trout breeding stock.
Stocking policies seem to be nonexistent. In each region, fisheries biologists make their own decisions, which has led to serious stocking mistakes, like the one that allowed stocked brook trout to invade the Rapid River in the Rangeley area, which once was the best native brook trout fishery in the state. It’s very sad.
Stocked fish are wicked expensive - not only the fish that are stocked, but especially the fish that are caught. Catch rates for stocked fish can be very low, sometimes 10 to 15 percent, resulting in each caught fish costing a lot. We really need to take a look at that problem.
We are not competitive with other states that focus on stocked fisheries. It might be time to look at what other states are doing and figure out a better strategy – one that might, I think, focus more of our limited resources on protecting, enhancing, and marketing our self-sustaining populations of wild fish. Consider this: we catch twice as many smallmouth bass each year as brook trout. And I probably don’t have to tell you that none of those bass came from a hatchery, nor did any of our native brook trout that are now protected in hundreds of ponds.
I believe Maine’s fishing economy and future lies in self-sustaining populations of wild fish, from brook trout to bass. Stocked fish can supplement wild populations, but should never be used to supplant them. On a cost basis alone, self-sustained fisheries are the most sensible approach, particularly given Maine’s very limited financial capability to support an expensive stocking program.
There are other problems too, but these should be enough to justify a new commission. There is plenty of work to do.