Op-Ed in The Concord Monitor
December 26, 2021
My Turn: Taking stock of NH’s fish hatcheries
Every year, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department raises more than a million fish in concrete tanks and ponds at six fish hatcheries they operate around the state.
Once the fish reach desired size, they are loaded into trucks and driven all over New Hampshire to be deposited into lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. Depending on where a particular water body is located and how easy it is to reach, fish may be pumped in through a tube attached to the tanker truck, hand-carried in nets or buckets, or even flown in by helicopter in some cases.
Fish stocking has been going on in New Hampshire in some form for more than a century. For those who grew up fishing here, the state’s annual stocking routine may seem normal. But for others, the idea of driving around putting fish into lakes and ponds (and this is not unique to New Hampshire) sounds crazy. The obvious question is, why is this necessary? Aren’t there already fish in the lakes, ponds and rivers?
The answer, according to NH Fish and Game Executive Director Scott Mason, is that the mineral makeup of New Hampshire’s water is such that it cannot support populations of fish big enough or plentiful enough to satisfy anglers.
But their solution, raising fish in hatcheries and then trucking them around to favorite fishing spots, is not without problems, and water pollution at the hatcheries is one of them.
When mass-producing animals in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), whether it’s pigs, chickens or in this case, fish, an inevitable side effect is an accumulation of animal waste. Dealing with this waste has been a thorn in the side of the NH Fish and Game for some time.
At the Powder Mill Fish Hatchery in New Durham, wastewater from the operation is discharged directly into the Merrymeeting River, and for years NH Fish and Game exceeded the pollutant levels allowed under its EPA permit. This contributed to harmful cyanobacteria blooms in the river and also landed NH Fish and Game in court.
Seeing an opportunity in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, NH Fish and Game recently asked for and was granted $1,000,000 from the recovery fund to address the water pollution problems at the fish hatcheries. The grant will be put toward the planning stages of building a wastewater treatment facility at the Powder Mill Fish Hatchery.
In other words, NH Fish and Game will use federal ARPA funds, which are intended to help states recover economically from the pandemic and build more resilient infrastructures, to solve its pollution problem— a problem that NH Fish and Game is wholly responsible for and should pay for out of its own budget.
There are also technical reasons to disqualify the project. While ARPA funds may indeed be used for “necessary investments in projects that improve wastewater and stormwater infrastructure,” the eligibility requirements, which are the same as for the existing Clean Water State Revolving Fund, state that assistance is available for projects to control “non-point sources” of pollution, whereas the fish hatcheries are “point-source” polluters.
As it is the mission of our organization to help animals, what troubles us most about the grant is not the misuse of funds but that it signifies a long-term commitment to the fish hatcheries and stocking program.
“Everyone understands that these definitely need major investments,” Governor Sununu told the Executive Council before they voted to approve the ARPA grant.
Fish stocking concerns us because the practice interferes with nature and raises animal welfare concerns.
A growing body of scientific evidence shows that fish not only experience pain but are also far more sophisticated creatures than once understood. Yet at the hatcheries, fish are crowded into barren tanks with nothing to do but swim in circles.
Once released into water bodies, hatchery fish may be ill-equipped to survive or alternatively may out-compete native fish for food. They may also bring with them diseases and/or parasites that fish raised in crowded conditions commonly endure.
At a time when the public is learning there’s a lot more going on in the minds of fish than we might have realized (consider the popularity of documentaries like My Octopus Teacher and Seaspiracy) New Hampshire is planning a future where fish continue to be treated as expendable objects.
Instead of investing even more money in the fish hatcheries, NH Fish and Game should close them down and redirect the resources toward better managing the state’s water bodies to support native fish.
NH Fish and Game is already doing some of this work and could do more if the bulk of the inland fisheries budget weren’t going toward stocking. Where water bodies have been restored by removing dams to allow streams to run freely, for example, native fish populations have rebounded.
And in contrast to the merry-go-round of stocking, restoration projects are long-term, self-sustaining improvements that benefit not only native fish but also entire aquatic ecosystems.
(Joan O’Brien is a board member for New Hampshire Animal Rights League.)