Hatcheries take new tack to save fish

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.

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.

Some scientists say dumping hatchery fish into the watershed has hurt endangered wild salmon and trout. "There has been a considerable increase in awareness that the approaches of hatcheries needed to be substantially improved," adds Mr. Waples. "Part of the improvements relates to technology, but there's a philosophical component that has caused us to reevaluate our purpose."

The Fish and Wildlife Service finds itself caught in a cross purpose - spending millions of dollars to operate hatcheries, then spending millions more to try to safeguard the wild fish that hatcheries may threaten.

Scaling back the investment in fish stocking has been controversial. Generations of Americans have relied on hatcheries mass producing "domesticated" fish bound for anglers' frying pans.

Hatchery-raised fish displace beautiful wild fish, though, and critics say they are poor substitutes because they're often pale and have eroded dorsal fins. In Bozeman, Mr. Barrows has solved those problems through better diets and by reducing crowded hatchery conditions. "The hatchery of the future will focus on quality of fish, not quantity," he says.

Hatchery fish are also known for being notoriously short-lived in the wild, easy prey for predators, and so tame they actually approach fishermen for food - all because they're fed by hand in captivity.

In response, researchers are reconfiguring the sterile, swimming-pool architecture of old hatchery runways to mimic natural conditions, simulating rapids, tree cover, and vegetation.

Perhaps the biggest shift is abandoning the domesticated breeds of hatchery fish for stocks reared only from wild fish eggs, ensuring the transplants are more compatible with native species.

Some critics believe that isn't enough. A quarter-century ago, Dick Vincent of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks campaigned to have the state stop stocking its streams with hatchery fish.

Today, Montana is the only state that doesn't use hatchery fish in streams, and its thriving wild-fish populations are the cornerstone of a famous fly-fishing economy. "People were taught that the only way you have fish in streams is to stock them, but that's not true," Mr. Vincent says. "It's hard for many managers to accept because it means retracting almost 100 years of thinking."

But even Mr. Vincent recognizes hatcheries' vital role. They helped rescue the Colorado greenback cutthroat trout. And annual stocking gives life to lakes and reservoirs that have no self-sustaining fish populations.

More profoundly, at a time when humans are overwhelming many natural resources, hatcheries offset the growing consumer demand for fish and relieve pressure on wild populations caused by commercial fishing.

"There are some species that might not survive without our help," says Jerri Bartholomew, a professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "Hatcheries may not be what some people want, but in today's world, they are necessary."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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