The cost of stocking: Value for your dollar?

In the last article I presented a very brief history of stocking and presented findings by two iconoclastic biologists that call into question the impact stocking trout has on wild trout fisheries. One area not discussed was the dollars and cents of stocking. This is an important consideration in a world of limited state budgets and limited state resources. This is a question that I have often asked myself and researched to the best of my abilities. To understand the return on investment one has to ask a few questions: How much does each trout cost, how many trout that are stocked are actually caught, and how many stocked trout survive beyond the first year to carry over to the second, third, fourth year etc?

Let's start with cost. While I have asked several state fishery officials for a per dollar break down for a stocked trout I found this answer a bit elusive. A deeper dive brought me to studies done in Pennsylvania, a fishery report of the Battenkill written in 1972 as well as the total cost outlay for stocking on the New York Battenkill in 2016. When I pieced all this information together I was able to fix a cost per trout at $2.07. From this point forward I will be using data collected from a 2009 creel survey of the New York Battenkill and a cost of $2.07 per trout to establish the true return on investment of stocking.

In 2009 NYS stocked 25,025 trout in the `kill. The total cost of that stocking rounds up to $51,0802. The estimated number of trout caught in 2009 on the NY Battenkill was 8,450 fish. In order to shed the most positive light on the stocking program I will assume that all the fish caught were stocked fish; which is certainly not accurate but we can look at that in more detail later. On the flip side of this very expensive coin this also means that there were 16,575 trout that were NOT caught. Put into percentages 34 % of the trout stocked were caught and 66 % were not caught. Interestingly when Vincent did his study the expectation was about a 15 % rate of return of fish stocked. Other reports I have read peg the return on stocked fish at anywhere from 25 - 30 % so my estimates are in the ballpark.

While this may be all well and good what does this mean from a dollars and cents point of view? Since only 34 % of the stocked fish were caught that means of the $51,802 spent to stock the river only $17,613 went back to the angler and $34,189 were lost; going into the gullets of mergansers, otters, ospreys and other "poachers" or the stocked fish simply failed to adapt and died. One could thus reasonably argue that the TRUE cost of each trout that comes back to the angler is $6.13 (total cost of stocking / number of trout caught).

Those are pricy fish!

If one takes an even deeper look the rationale for stocking gets even murkier. When the creel survey was conducted the NY fishery folks divided the river into four sections: Special Regulations Area (SRA) from the state line to Eagleville, Shushan, Rexleigh, and East Greenwich. The total quantity and percent of the overall total of stocking for each section was as follows: SRA 800 (3%), Shushan 5,350 (21 %), Rexleigh 11,425 (46 %) and East Greenwich 7,450 (30%). Here is where it gets very interesting. Despite only receiving 3 percent of the overall stocking the upper SRA had the highest total catch rate at 36 percent of the total (3,037 fish). This was followed by Rexleigh at 33 % (2,748 fish), East Greenwhich at 17 % (1,419 fish) and Shushan at 15 % (1,246 fish).

How could it possibly be that the SRA had such a divergence between the number of fish stocked and the number of fish caught? Could it be that being a catch and release practiced heavily in this section allowed the fish to be caught more than once? That is indeed possible. But another data point suggests something else. NYS clipped the fins of stocked fish in the SRA in order to differentiate from wild trout. In angler surveys fully 62 % of the fish caught were not fin clipped. Remember at the beginning I assumed that each fish caught was a stocked fish? Clearly this is not true but the ROI that I present is done to shed the most favorable view of the stocking program so as not to be accused of being unjustly biased.

With regards to the survivability of stocked trout from one season to the next the 2009 creel survey did not indicate any meaningful carry-over of stocked trout from one season to the next. In fact, New York conducted a wide ranging study published in 2014 (looking at 5 rivers across the state over a three-year period) that demonstrated that stocked trout numbers decline precipitously as the season wears on and that carry over of trout from one season to the next is negligible. This work also pointed to yet another study that estimated that 51 % of the trout stocked in the upper West Branch of the Delaware wound up in the gullets of merganser ducks. Anybody fishing our local rivers is well aware of the presence of a robust merganser population.

It should be clear at this point that stocking is an expensive proposition that provides little long term benefit that doesn't begin to address chronic habitat issues on our rivers and streams. While I will be first to recognize that it is unrealistic to expect that every river can be managed as a self-sustaining fishery I believe there are more rivers out there than we may realize that would thrive with a habitat focused approach rather than stocking. Unfortunately, when virtually all dollars are devoted to stocking that leaves very few opportunities to take a different approach. And this is the real tragedy.

In the final installment we will look at a different approach that has proven successful but is underfunded and underutilized.


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