Doug Lyons: Closure of hatchery an opportunity, not a loss
Many throughout the state have decried the announcement that the Salisbury Fish Hatchery may be closed. Count me as one who sees this not as a tragic loss but as a tremendous opportunity. Last year Vermont Fish and Wildlife presented a new trout management plan that places an emphasis on managing the state fisheries for self-sustaining wild trout populations as a priority while providing additional recreational opportunities via stocking of hatchery-raised trout.
Just as raising and distributing hatchery trout costs money so does managing wild trout fisheries. The problem with the Trout Management Plan is that while in concept the emphasis is on protecting, preserving and restoring wild trout fisheries through holistic resource management, no significant funding source has been dedicated to this sensible approach. Virtually all monies that Vermont Fish and Wildlife spend are directed towards the artificial propagation and stocking of trout.
The challenges with stocking are many. To begin with, the costs are indeed prohibitive, as the state is learning rather quickly. It is also a dirty business. Like all creatures, fish poop. When thousands of fish are raised in confined spaces lots of waste is created and that waste has to be dealt with one way or another. The old fashion way was just to let the waste flow downstream, which creates a biological wasteland below the point source pollution, rendering otherwise healthy streams anything but. In Pennsylvania, one of the finest spring creeks was destroyed when a hatchery was placed on its headwaters. In Michigan, the world-class Au Sable River only just avoided a similar fate when a commercial fish farm was closed after a die off within the hatchery due to rampant disease. Avoiding these environmental disasters means expending millions of dollars. Vermont cannot afford the cost of
mitigating the waste created by a hatchery. What state can?
Another significant pitfall of stocking is that anglers see a low return for dollar spent. Only about 30 percent of trout stocked are returned to the angler either for catching and releasing or for putting into the creel for enjoying a meal. In what world does it make sense that only 30 cents returned on the dollar is a good value to the angler?
Another downside with stocked trout is that they fall prey in significant numbers to the burgeoning population of mergansers that the Northeast has seen over the last decade plus. While the ducks, no doubt, enjoy the meals they are being provided by the state it seems a bit illogical to stock trout to feed ducks. A study in New York indicated that on the upper West Branch of the Delaware River 51 percent of stocked trout were being consumed by mergansers. A number of years ago now retired fishery biologist Bill Miller observed that the merganser population on the lower Battenkill was being quite adequately sustained by the New York's stocking of the lower 'kill.
A final issue with stocked trout is that they do not survive over the course of the season in significant numbers let alone from one year to the next; which is why stocking trout is a bit like washing ones hair - lather, rinse, repeat. The cost of stocking from one year to another simply does not go away.
From an anglers point of view, I frankly don't know who would travel any distance to fish for stocked trout. I split my time between Massachusetts and Vermont and, frankly there are more than enough stocked rivers within a 50-mile drive of my home. There is no need to travel outside that radius to catch a government-reared fish. Wild trout are a completely different proposition. Anglers will indeed travel great distances to catch wild trout. Which is why states such as Montana, Wyoming and Michigan host many visiting anglers.
Which brings me to the opportunity that Vermont has now been presented. With the loss of the Salisbury Hatchery fishery managers should think long and hard about where they wish to take trout management as we put the 20th century in the rear view mirror. It is time for Vermont to move into the 21st century and go all in on resource management rather than angler management.
My suggestion is this: let the hatchery go and don't look back. Propping up marginal trout fisheries is an expense that the state that cannot afford. Go all in on resource management. The many high quality fisheries within the state have challenges aplenty that deserve meaningful work. In-stream habitat improvements can protect fish from the merganser issue that is very real. Riparian restoration via tree planting to provide a robust green belt that will address the challenges that will face cold water fisheries in the face of climate change.
A resource based approach also benefits more than just anglers. Rivers that are properly connected to their flood plains mitigates flood damage, storm water management that puts rain water and snow melt into the ground rather than directly into a river maintains groundwater resources, keeps base flows higher in the summer, which benefits floaters. Besides providing shade, green-belts help prevent erosion and provide diverse habitats for land based animals.
Vermont has many miles of quality flowing water, whether it is the upland mountain streams that provide brook trout fishing or valley rivers and streams that offer classic trout fishing opportunities that have, frankly, been taken for granted and could use a good dose of tender loving care. The trout management plan certainly recognizes this but lacks the funding mechanisms to move the plan from policy to reality.
I urge Vermont Fish and Wildlife to look at the closure of the Salisbury hatchery not as a loss but as an opportunity to make Vermont not a nice place to fish but a great place to fish. The possibilities are there. Seize that opportunity and don't look back.
Doug Lyons writes about fish, fishing and outdoor issues for the Journal.
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