Get outside: Build it and they will come

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In the first two installments I have tried to establish that stocking is an expensive practice that puts at risk self-sustaining populations of trout and fails to address challenges that hamper the quality of our better fisheries. Even with that said I want to stress that stocking is a valid and valuable tool for fishery managers. It should not be is the only tool.

In my analysis I have estimated that in a decade approximately $500,000 will be spent stocking trout in the New York Battenkill. With a return of 34 percent stocked trout to the angler, that means $170,000 are returned to the angler and $330,000 are lost. That is not a very fiscally responsible program in my view.

What is interesting is that in the last 10 years there has been about the same amount of dollars spent on habitat restoration projects on the Battenkill. This too is a lot of money. Most of it has come from private and federal dollars. Neither New York or Vermont have spent dollars on actual habitat restoration though Vermont has put considerable effort and manpower into evaluating the success of these projects via annual electro-fishing studies. What has been learned is extremely valuable. In the stretch of river that was restored in 2007 the number of trout saw an initial surge of 500 percent increase and ten years later continues to perform above this elevated level. To amplify this performance a project done last year saw an increase of adult catchable trout from 3 to 77 in one year - a 2500 percent increase. In other words, the work is both effective and sustained. Amortized over time the habitat projects are cost effective when compared to stocking.

All this is great, of course, but in the long term is it sustainable? Under the current model the answer is no. There have been many great partners in the journey to restoring the Battenkill but it is unreasonable to expect that their ability to step up is limitless. Additionally, the lessons learned on the 'kill can't be applied elsewhere without a process in place. The good news is that a model does exist to give fishery managers options other than stocking to provide high quality angling experiences. What is that model?

There are several states that have trout stamps that are purchased for the purpose of funding hatchery activity, habitat work, or both. These are in addition to the fishing license that is purchased annually. Does the angler pay a bit more? Yes. Do they get more in return? Yes. Let me stress again that a habitat focused approach is not a replacement for stocking but should be an approach that has equal value to stocking. There is no question that it is a more difficult approach. Landowner buy in is imperative and projects require careful planning and execution. But the end results are more about creating a more stable river system, which benefits all users (anglers, floaters, landowners and municipalities). The trout benefit as a byproduct of this work.

The key ingredient to making this happen is leadership. The biologists I have met over the years are eager to do more than stock. They want to apply the knowledge they have gained over the years in a way that provides lasting benefits. In order to bring forward change in fishery management requires leaders that are willing to take a longer view even though they may be the recipient of a few pot shots along the way. The folks in Vermont that stood by the Battenkill have more than a few battle scars but at the end of the day their efforts have paid off and then some. It would be a shame to not apply what has been learned on this river and apply those learnings wisely in the appropriate watersheds.

Too often I have heard it said in one way or another "we want to be less reliant on stocking as a tool". My response to that is very simple: The only way a more holistic approach towards fishery management is going to come about is to reduce stocking budgets and redirecting those funds towards habitat work. I am NOT advocating for the wholesale elimination of stocking but a more balanced approach is needed if we are going to maximize the value of our best fisheries.

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