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Fish Planting With a Catch : DFG Wasting Resources, Say Critics Who Decry Hatchery Program

April 07, 1993|JEFF MEYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are disparaged by fly-fishermen as "liver-pellet guppies wrapped in rainbow skin," "fat, dumb, slow-moving fish" and "pathetic, goofy creatures." Raised in pens and fed fish chow by humans, California's hatchery trout are not bred to be wily or elusive or majestic. Their purpose in life: to end up on the business end of a fishing line.

Last year, the California Department of Fish and Game spent $13 million to plant 9.5 million hatchery trout in the state's streams, rivers and lakes. According to DFG estimates, half of those fish wound up on stringers; almost all of the rest died of starvation or were eaten by predators such as largemouth bass and cormorants.

To critics of the state's hatchery program, the DFG is simply pouring resources down the drain. "The costs are tremendous for what amounts to an Easter egg hunt," says K.C. Walsh, a Los Angeles-based director of Trout Unlimited, a national organization with 70,000 members.

Trout Unlimited and CalTrout, a 4,500-member organization, cite studies showing that California's hatchery-trout program--which consumes about 40% of the DFG's revenue from the sale of fishing licenses--benefits only about 10% of the state's 1.5 million licensed anglers.

"It's pure and simple economics," says Jim Edmondson, a regional manager of CalTrout. "Can we afford to allocate that much . . . for a program that is being used by only a (small percentage) of the angling public? I don't think so."

Although the DFG has no studies of its own, "We take strong exception" to the 10% figure, says Ken Hashagen, who runs the DFG hatchery program. Hashagen does agree, however, that the current program "needs evaluation."

To move the process along, Trout Unlimited has filed a lawsuit to force the DFG to take a hard look at its hatchery program, "which is stuck in the 1890s," Edmondson says. "It needs a complete overhaul."

Created in 1888, the hatchery program had a policy of "put, grow and take" until the end of World War II. Tiny two- to three-inch fingerlings were planted instead of larger trout; by the time they were big enough to swallow a hook, they had adapted to their surroundings and provided a more challenging experience for anglers.

But when California's population began to rise after the war, the DFG no longer had the luxury of being able to nurture fingerlings. As the number of fishermen increased, so did the demand for so-called "catchable" fish. "Put and take" became the new policy. Fingerlings were fattened in the hatchery, grown to eight-to-12-inch lengths and chauffeured directly to waiting fishermen, who were told when the truck would arrive from one of the state's 20 hatcheries and were there with baited hooks.

But critics contend trout plants are basically marketing tools--a way to sell fishing licenses--and that the put-and-take policy shouldn't be written in stone. If the fishing is slow at a lake or a roadside stream, the DFG should consider alternatives to "just backing the hatchery truck up," says Edmondson, who lives in Shadow Hills.

There are roughly 20,000 miles of streams in California, but fly-fishermen feel shortchanged because most of the hatchery budget, they say, is concentrated on only 3,000 miles, most near urban areas. Trout Unlimited is asking the DFG to spread the money around and make a philosophical shift in fish management.

It is proposing that California's inland waters be divided into three categories: 1) wild trout rivers, like Ventura County's Sespe Creek, which would be not be planted and would be strictly catch and release; lakes like Cachuma in Santa Barbara County and Casitas in Ventura County, which would be planted with put-grow-and-take wild stock bred from eggs taken from river trapping stations; and 3) so-called "urban ponds," which would be stocked with hatchery trout.

"Put the instant-gratification fish in an area where they'll be easy to catch," says Barrett McInerney, a Van Nuys-based attorney for Trout Unlimited. "There should be a 100% return on those fish."

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Hashagen defends the current planting policy. "Families with children, disabled people and other individuals need recreation," he says, "and we provide it. They don't care if the fish come out of hatcheries or from wild parents."

Aside from spending a disproportionate amount of money on the hatchery program, says Trout Unlimited, the DFG jeopardizes wild trout populations by introducing hatchery trout in rivers and streams. Some biologists believe the sudden invasion of hatchery trout forces wild trout out of the area. Genetically inferior to wild trout, hatchery trout are bred from brood stock and are "cookie-cutter" fish, McInerney says. Although only an estimated 5% survive more than three months in the wild, their presence can "disrupt the fish population and (cause) genetic dilution," McInerney says.

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