Article: State’s fish hatcheries are about to get a boost; some environmentalists say that’s a problem

by Amanda Gokee, New Hampshire Bulletin

Many of the state’s fish begin their lives not in a mountain stream but in a small white box in New Hampton at one of the state’s six fish hatcheries, where young fish are bred and raised before being released in the wild. Brown trout, rainbow trout, and landlocked salmon are grown at these hatcheries and then delivered to the state’s waterways, some arriving by truck and others by helicopter so when people come to fish, they have a chance at getting a good catch.

Originally a response to overfishing, this century-old approach has drawn criticism from some environmentalists and anglers, as the state prepares to invest in the next generation of hatcheries.

With $55 million in federal relief funds, the state is preparing to update its fish hatcheries and build two new facilities with plans for a third, after facing a lawsuit over water pollution created by raising fish on farms. But some environmental advocates say these updates come at the expense of the state’s wild native fish population, which is harmed by the stocking of farm-raised fish.

“New Hampshire is far too reliant on hatcheries, does too much stocking over wild fish, and does too little to protect wild native species,” said Bob Mallard, executive director of Native Fish Coalition. “Increasing hatchery capacity is likely to only make it worse.”

The $55 million would fund the construction of two new hatcheries, which could produce an estimated 250,000 pounds of fish, according to the Fish and Game Department. It would also pay for the design of a third hatchery, capable of producing an additional 150,000 pounds of fish. The request for funding was approved by the Executive Council in late April, and the deadline for completing the project is 2026.

The demand for this fish comes from anglers, who have come to expect large and plentiful fish, according to Dianne Timmins, division chief of inland fisheries at the Department of Fish and Game. And the department depends on anglers to purchase fishing licenses, which are the main source of funding. “If we don’t sell licenses, we don’t get money, so it’s really an economic thing,” Timmins said.  

Around 200,000 anglers purchase licenses in New Hampshire in a typical year, generating approximately $6 million, according to the department.

But wild fish are usually only a few inches long and not of interest to anglers, Timmins said. “When you’re talking about satisfying an angler, they’re not going to want to go catch 30 two-inch fish. They’re going to want to go catch a couple big fish,” she said.

That is what fish hatcheries can reliably deliver – raising the fish in captivity and then releasing them into the state’s waterways. The hatcheries also deliver broader economic benefits, the department argues, attributing $100 million in annual spending to recreational fishing and another $150 million in economic activity.

But stocking fish comes at a cost. Mallard said it has wreaked havoc on wild native fish, suppressing natural reproduction and potentially introducing disease, viruses, and parasites. Because the fish raised in hatcheries are larger than wild fish, they become an apex predator, outcompeting and eating juvenile wild fish, Mallard said.  

Brook trout are one wild native species that has been on the decline, under the pressures of overfishing, climate change, and stocking. Once native to many streams and lakes, wild brook trout are now officially only found in a few of the state’s lakes and ponds.

Mallard, who has been fishing for 40 years, has seen the change firsthand. He grew up fishing wild native brook trout in the White Mountains when they were more plentiful; now their populations have noticeably diminished, Mallard said.

But he believes the trend is reversible – as long as the state reduces its reliance on hatcheries and imposes tighter regulations on anglers, such as stricter daily bag limits and tackle restrictions. Instead of allocating resources to hatcheries, Mallard said money should go toward habitat restoration, reclamation, and land acquisition.

Timmins said the department is working in those areas while also building new hatcheries for the future. 

The Native Fish Coalition is a regional organization that works in 12 states. Of those states, Mallard said, New Hampshire has been among the most reluctant to change.

Water pollution

In addition to threatening native populations, fish hatcheries can also harm the water quality of nearby rivers and streams. 

In 2018, the Conservation Law Foundation sued the state over the Powder Mill Hatchery in New Durham, alleging that the facility was violating the Clean Water Act. 

The facility allows water to cycle through fish hatcheries where thousands of fish live in close quarters, causing excrement to leave the facility, and along with it nutrients like phosphorus that can enter the water downstream, the foundation noted.

“That fish hatchery has been there for 75 years. We’ve grown a lot of fish. That’s a lot of stuff going downstream,” said Ted Diers, assistant director of the water division for the Department of Environmental Services. 

“Some of the highest numbers (of phosphorus) we’ve ever measured were downstream from (Powder Mill),” Diers said. The hatchery in Berlin also has water quality problems; Diers said there are elevated levels of chlorophyll. 

Downstream from the Powder Mill Hatchery in the Merrymeeting River, elevated levels of phosphorus have led to problems like chlorophyll, algal blooms, and cyanobacterial blooms, which can be harmful to human health and are worsening as waters warm due to climate change.

“It’s the ultimate irony to trash a river like the Merrymeeting River to produce fish to put in other rivers so people can go fishing for them,” said Tom Irwin, the director of New Hampshire’s Conservation Law Foundation.

“If we’re going to have these hatcheries, it’s a good thing to make sure that they don’t pollute and don’t degrade the water resources they discharge into,” he said. The lawsuit filed by the Conservation Law Foundation is still pending.

The new facilities would be designed to limit nutrients entering downstream waters by using a centrifuge design to remove the waste while it is still solid, Diers said. The facilities range from 50 to 125 years old and are in need of an update, he added.

The New Hampton Fish Hatchery is one of them. Built in the 1920s, the facility still uses many of its original tanks, according to hatchery foreman Zach Curran. But knowledge has evolved over the past 100 years, and Curran said updating the facility would make it more efficient and reduce labor involved with tasks like cleaning the tanks. 

Certain environmental advocates disagree with that approach and would rather see the facilities shut down.

“The fisheries are antiquated. Maybe the system of stocking is also antiquated. Maybe we shouldn’t be doing it anymore,” said Joan O’Brien, who serves on the board of Voices of Wildlife, an advocacy organization.  

But according to Timmins, that outcome is unrealistic. “Stocking will never go away,” she said. The department has made some changes to protect native fish, Timmins noted, like no longer stocking headwaters that tend to already have a natural population of brook trout. In some of those areas, she said, they have also stopped stocking rainbow and brown trout, which are nonnative species. 

Fish hatcheries were originally built because overfishing had decimated fish populations in the state as early as the late 1800s. Now, those who want to do away with them have to make the case for more restrictions on fishing. 

“It’s socially, politically easier to stock fish than to protect what’s there because protecting what’s there requires concessions that anglers don’t like,” Mallard said. 

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