In 1871, concerned about the nation's declining recreational and commercial fisheries, Congress passed a joint resolution establishing the U.S. Fish Commission to investigate the causes of the declines and to develop and oversee restoration efforts. By the late 1890s and early 1900s, with fisheries in the Great Lakes and America's rivers still failing to rebound, the Commission—renamed the United States Bureau of Fisheries in 1903—began building national hatcheries to help restore fish populations.
That system of fish hatcheries, created more than 100 years ago, is still in operation; today they are part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). One hatchery, Vermont’s Dwight D. Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery, which opened in 1906, was home to some of the early work by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries to develop fish-rearing procedures for a number of fish species.
"From 1925 to 1940, the hatchery was an experimental station focusing on culturing new species, fish nutrition and selective breeding," says Lowell Whitney, acting Assistant Regional Director for the USFWS Fisheries and Habitat Conservation program. "The hatchery raised California golden trout, cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, brown trout, Loch Levlen trout, lake trout, brook trout, Arctic char and Arctic grayling."
Today, fish hatcheries in the Northeast produce three species of trout: lake trout, brook trout, and rainbow trout. The lake trout and brook trout are native to the Northeast, while the rainbow trout is native to the Pacific Coast. The main focus of northeastern hatcheries is raising and restoring native fish in the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain and inland and coastal rivers, with a lesser focus on helping other hatcheries in areas with rainbow trout.
"We raise rainbow trout broodfish at the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery in West Virginia, which are used to produce eggs that we ship to other state and tribal hatcheries," Whitney said. "The White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery produces and ships nine million disease-free rainbow trout eggs annually to four tribes and eleven states across the country. That effort supports their recreational fishing programs, mitigates the loss of native fisheries due to federal water projects and supports our tribal trust responsibilities."
Fish are tested to ensure their health. "The Lamar Fish Health Center at the Northeast Fishery Center in Pennsylvania, is critical to ensuring the health of fish maintained in our hatcheries and the health of wild native fisheries," Whitney says. "They implement the National Wild Fish Health Survey, and regularly test fish raised in our national and state fish hatcheries to ensure that only healthy fish and disease-free eggs are shipped or stocked into our public waters."
Most fish being produced by hatcheries in the Northeast are used to augment naturally reproducing populations and to rebuild depleted native fish and aquatic species. "The goal is to restore self-sustaining populations that support healthy ecosystems and support valued recreational and commercial fisheries," Whitney says. "For example, the Great Lakes fishery is worth more than $7 billion annually and supports more than 75,000 jobs. Anglers come from all over the globe to fish the Great Lakes for any number of species, including the largest trout native to the Great Lakes, the lake trout."
Helping sustainable populations of lake trout recover from their depleted condition has been the goal of an extensive and long-standing collaboration between the U.S., Canada and tribal governments in the Great Lakes region. Through hatchery propagation, habitat restoration and applied research, lake trout populations are improving. These programs include the continuous stocking of lake trout in Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and parts of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
"We stock young fish, usually yearlings, which grow to a catchable size in the lakes," Whitney says. "We also stock native prey fishes in the Great Lakes. Our hatcheries and fish health centers are working with state, tribal and Canadian resource agencies to restore cisco and bloater, which play critical roles as food for top predatory fish such as lake trout."
The Allegheny National Fish Hatchery in Pennsylvania has been rearing four strains of lake trout for stocking in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario since 2011. "The Allegheny hatchery currently stocks 320,000 trout in Lake Ontario and 240,000 in Lake Erie, annually," Whitney says. "Allegheny also supplies the state of Pennsylvania with about 2,400 pounds of their surplus lake trout, which the state uses in their inland recreational fishing programs."
The Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery in Vermont stocks 80,000 trout annually in Lake Ontario. The Berkshire National Fish Hatchery in Massachusetts and the White River National Fish Hatchery in Vermont raise heritage strains of lake trout for brood fish so they can supply other federal hatcheries with lake trout eggs, which then are grown out for stocking in the Great Lakes.
A UNIFIED EFFORT
The primary goal of hatcheries as a conservation tool is to get fish populations back to levels where they are self-sufficient in their native habitats and no longer need stocking. For the success of the hatchery program, all of the habitats where the fish are being stocked need to be in good condition, including riparian, wetland, lake and upland habitats. The water must be cold, clean and connected to other waters that are free of barriers to movement and migration and free of non-native invasive species that may suppress or outcompete native species.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to working across programs with landowners, states, tribes and a range of conservation partners in the Northeast to sustain native fish and aquatic species and ensure they have resilient habitats that help them thrive both now and in the future," Whitney says. "We’re also committed to connecting people to nature, and healthy fisheries provide boundless recreational opportunities for anglers and everyone else who enjoys the outdoors. Our hatcheries are one important tool in helping us achieve both of these goals.”
Note: This article first appeared in the May 2020 East edition of Game & Fish Magazine.