In 2010, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife spent nearly $3 million per year to stock 1.5 million trout and salmon in Maine waters, usually under a put-grow-take program, a seemingly bottomless pit for dumping money.

Because the stocking program cost so much, roughly $2 per fish, Gov. Paul LePage wants IFW to rely on habitat restoration instead of stocked salmonids to maintain our trout-and-salmon fisheries, an enlightened stand for a man who has made this state’s environmental community nervous.

However, this topic calls for more than a straight either-or answer:

For starters, where salmonid have adequate spawning and nursery habitat, IFW knows they can produce enough trout for a self-sustaining recreational fishery.

However, where salmonids have limited to no spawning and nursery, true on hundreds of Maine waters, IFW must release hatchery fish to maintain a fishery that will influence anglers to buy licenses.

This topic reminds me of a conversation in 1992 with Peter Bourque, one of IFW’s head fisheries biologists. I mentioned that a well-known member of a small, Maine fishing organization had criticized IFW and him for stocking trout in waters capable of natural reproduction.

“Why would we do that?” Bourque asked, looking genuinely puzzled.

He then explained hatchery salmonids were expensive, but wild fish cost virtually nothing.

Despite IFW’s long-held stand, the anti-stocking crowd thinks we should improve water quality so salmonids could propagate on their own. The only spending would go to law enforcement to curtail poaching and to stop illegal development activities that degrade fisheries habitat.

However, before jumping on the anti-stocking bandwagon to eliminate hatcheries, folks should consider these points:

Restoring salmonid habitat requires huge sums of money unless state agencies can recruit volunteer workers, an excellent option. In some waters, an enthusiastic group under a fisheries biologist could add manpower, but so far, a widespread volunteer program for improving nursery and spawning hasn’t developed in this state.

Furthermore, Maine has one huge problem with so many of our waters, particularly lakes and ponds. They can support mature trout and salmon just fine, but even before Old World settlers arrived, many waters have lacked adequate spawning or nursery habitat, or both. Nature caused this shortcoming, too, not habitat degradation from human population growth.

Mature salmonids cannot reproduce without proper spawning areas, and juvenile salmonids cannot survive without nursery habitat. In that environment, IFW needs hatchery fish for a suitable recreational fishery.

(A few years ago, IFW did build spawning habitat on the East Outlet of the Kennebec River, so it’s possible to build either one, but candidates for such a project need suitable areas for construction.)

According to William Woodward, a retired fisheries biologist from IFW’s Region B, 13 ponds in Kennebec and Lincoln counties once produced an attractive stocked trout fishery, thanks to IFW hatcheries, but shorefront owners closed public access. IFW cannot release hatchery fish grown with license money into waters where anglers have no access, so the stocking program ended in these places.

Fishing pressure dropped to near zero, but according to Woodward, who studied these waters, salmonid populations remained small. In short, without the right habitat to propagate, these waters could not maintain a fishable trout population — an old story — which brings up the next point

It’s not rocket science for fisheries biologists to determine the square meters of nursery and spawning habitat and translate that into a potential population figure.

However, when fisheries activists talk about this topic, listeners might think these professionals are too stupid to look at water depth, bottom composition and water temperature and come up with a reliable population estimate.

Here’s another point about habitat restoration. A few years ago in an annual IFW fisheries-management report, fisheries biologists included guidelines for rebuilding riparian habitat. These professionals excluded mountain streams and rivers that drop straight and fast down a steep gradient, which destroys habitat-restoration work in the first spring flood.

Such a scenario describes lots of Maine rivers and streams, particularly in the north country.

Sinuosity and shallow gradients are crucial for restoration programs to succeed. Rivers and streams chosen for such projects should meander through flatlands, creating undercut banks, deep pools, shallow runs and proper bottom composition for spawning and nurseries.

Make no mistake. Our department knows how to improve habitat in suitable places but lacks manpower and money for big projects.

IFW also needs an aggressive volunteer coordinator to develop a work force.

Without stocking, particularly in Maine’s bottom third, where a majority of fishing-license holders live, quality waters that can support salmonids would have no trout and salmon because of limited or no spawning and nursery habitat. License sales would plummet. It’s that simple, folks.

With that said, LePage is on the right track for suitable waters wherever IFW stocks over a self-sustaining trout population, but I have a suspicion that such waters are the exception.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]