The cost of trout fishing upon our river ecosystems is high. That’s because we’ve industrialized the trout, like we’ve industrialized so many animals.
Twenty-eight million Americans will buy freshwater fishing licenses this year. Eight million of them will be trout and salmon anglers. Native wild trout have mostly disappeared in the face of this immense fishing pressure. They have been replaced by nonnative hatchery fish and their river-born “wild” trout offspring. Nationwide, state and federal fisheries agencies dump some 130 million trout in lakes, rivers and streams each year. Although this stocking lures people outside, the hatcheries that produce these trout create environmental problems.
Trout aquaculture is heavily reliant on pellet feed. The federal and state hatchery production of some 28 million pounds of trout per year requires roughly 34 million pounds of feed. These pellets are derived from herring, menhaden and anchovies harvested from oceans in quantities that the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say are unsustainable. We are devastating populations of marine species simply to support a freshwater hobby.
If that’s not bad enough, hatcheries are major polluters. Each year, much of the roughly six million pounds of fish excrement, uneaten food and dead and decaying fish that I estimate are produced by these hatcheries leach nutrients into wastewater that is often then dumped untreated into the closest stream or river. This wastewater can also contain medicines and antibiotics used to limit diseases in crowded pens, and disinfectants that sterilize holding tanks. Ultimately, these hatcheries may be contributing to the proliferation of “dead zones” — biological wastelands created by excess nutrients — that are choking estuaries and coastal ecosystems downstream.
Although stocking trout is harmful, eating them is far better than eating native wild trout. When these native fish die, their genetic uniqueness dies, too. (Brook and lake trout are the only trout native to the entire Northeast, for instance; nonnatives like brown, rainbow and golden trout are also released into Northeast streams.) Unfortunately, many states set uniformly high catch limits that draw no distinction between native versus nonnative trout. Therefore, anglers need to hold themselves to a higher standard than the rules that govern their actions.
It’s tough. Maybe we shouldn’t worry about it too much. After all, fishing is a major recreational activity for millions of Americans and just because it has screwed wild fish stocks, does that mean it should end? Should we just accept that we have industrialized this activity and go for it? Do wild fish stocks matter? I’d argue yes for the last question and say that managing this resource also means ensuring as much of a healthy ecological system as possible.