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Hatcheries take new tack to save fish

By Todd WilkinsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 11, 2000


In the pastoral outskirts of this Montana fly-fishing hub, amid rows of nondescript metal buildings and concrete pools shaped like bowling alleys, Rick Barrows fidgets with ingredients in his latest recipe.

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Some of his concoctions will feed millions of hungry mouths in the Southeast. Others will be shipped to slippery swimmers from the Midwest to the Pacific.

Mr. Barrows, an animal nutritionist, and a handful of colleagues with the US Fish and Wildlife Service are on a mission that could have consequences for millions of Americans. Their objective: crafting healthier, prettier hatchery fish that survive better in the wild.

It's part of a major new direction for the federal government to change how thousands of fish hatcheries across the country are managed.

During the 20th century, billions of tax dollars were spent stocking untold billions of hatchery fish into American waters. The goal was to provide recreational fishing opportunities for a growing nation, while offsetting declines in natural fish populations caused by hydropower dams and habitat loss.

Now, scientific evidence suggests that traditional stocking may be harming the very wild fish the transplants were meant to supplement. As a result, fish hatcheries are being retooled to play an environmentally friendlier role.

"The emerging trend being handed down from Washington is to have federal hatcheries less focused on simply serving recreational-fishing constituencies, and more emphasis placed on recovering threatened and endangered species," says Bill Krise, manager of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Fish Technology Center in Bozeman, Mont.

This lab is one of seven in the country where tradition is being reinvented. Since colonial times, it was a common practice for hatcheries to produce millions of young fish, which were hauled in milk containers to lakes and streams.

Some practitioners of fish-stocking are legendary. The Bozeman hatchery ledger bears the signature of William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who a century ago picked up a shipment of brook trout - which were not native to the region - and deposited the fish in streams near Yellowstone to provide sustenance for settlers coming west.

Wildlife-management pioneers long thought they were doing the public a favor, and in many places their magic created "instant fisheries." But their good intentions sometimes resulted in native fish being usurped by exotic transplants. The genetic purity of wild fish was also threatened by inbreeding.

Today, hatcheries are coming under unprecedented scrutiny.

"I would characterize the debate as being fairly complicated and contentious," says Robin Waples of the National Marine Fisheries science center in Seattle.

Since the 1990s, federal and state agencies have been reviewing the management practices of hatcheries in the massive Columbia River Basin, which extends from the Pacific to the Rockies.