Propagated Fish in Resource Management

A Historical Perspective on the Philosophy behind the Use of Propagated Fish in Fisheries Management: Michigan’s 130-Year Experience

Gary E. Whelan


Abstract.—Michigan’s fish hatcheries were originally developed in the 1870s in response to rapidly declining commercial fish stocks caused by massive overharvest and habitat degradation. While the writings of early fish culturists decried the waste from the commercial fishery and the destruction of critical habitat, there was little political will to do anything but stock fish, so for nearly 50 years, hatcheries became the only fishery management tool to address these problems. In the 1920s and 1930s, fishery managers recognized that more than hatcheries were needed to restore fish populations. Efforts were initiated to improve habitat and strictly control harvest. Hatcheries were still the primary focus of fisheries management, but culture policy changed to the production of fingerling rather than fry. This philosophy held sway until 1950 when a combination of research on fingerling returns and social demand for instant recreation forced the start of the legal-size trout program along with a reduction in the coolwater culture program in Michigan. In 1964, a complete shift in thought occurred. The legal-size trout program was discontinued, habitat rehabilitation was emphasized, and a policy of a 1:1 return to the creel as stocked was instituted. Propagated fish also became a tool for ecosystem change and Great Lakes salmonid stocking started in earnest to balance these prey dominated systems. In the 1970s and 1980s, coolwater fisheries programs were re-examined as water quality improvements from the Clean Water Act opened up new habitat for the re-establishment of these species. Large-scale culture operations for fingerling walleye, northern pike, muskellunge, and lake sturgeon culture operations were reinitiated. In the 1980s and 1990s, public concern over hatchery programs forced managers to review fish culture and stocking practices, and hatcheries became one of many biological, legal, and sociological tools to rehabilitate fish populations. Current Fisheries management philosophy in Michigan uses cultured fish to meet four objectives: (1) reestablish extirpated species, (2) rehabilitate degraded fish populations, (3) provide for ecosystem balance, and (4) create new sportfishing opportunities.