In this October 2019 photo, Derik Lee of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife moves 6-month-old brook trout from the Grand Lake Stream Fish Hatchery into a truck to stock lakes and ponds. Gov. Janet Mills has earmarked nearly $20 million from the Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan to modernize Maine's fish hatcheries, something BDN Outdoors contributor Bob Mallard opposes. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The state will be receiving nearly $4.5 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan, according to the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan. The program’s intent is to help states recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress has earmarked roughly $3.2 billion to address COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, enhanced unemployment benefits, stimulus payments to families and individuals, and support for businesses.

The remaining $1.13 billion allocated to Maine can be used at the discretion of Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature. This money will be spent through the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan, which will be used to “relieve the significant toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on Maine’s people, communities, and economy, while addressing known, systemic challenges that have constrained our state’s ability to grow and thrive.”

I was disappointed to read that Mills is earmarking close to $20 million in taxpayer COVID-19 relief money to “modernize two hatcheries, and install upgrades at all eight of the [Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife] hatcheries.”

Is this really where we want to put our money at a time when we do not know what the future will bring? Is this a top priority? Is it fair to the non-fishing masses? Is it even the right thing to do?

Per the wildlife and fisheries department, recreational fishing in Maine contributes more than $320 million to the economy. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Maine’s gross state product in 2020 was $66.2 billion. This means that recreational fishing represents less than one half of 1 percent of the total gross state product.

While the press release stated that Maine has 350,000 anglers, according to the Piscataquis Observer there were 249,119 licensed anglers in Maine in 2020. This included 175,220 residents and 73,899 nonresidents. The U.S. census lists Maine’s 2019 population as 1,344,212. This means that fewer than 15 percent of Mainers held a fishing license.

While fishing license sales saw a 20 percent bump in 2020 over the prior year, this is likely due to increased outdoor activity, a national trend driven by COVID-19 restrictions affecting indoor activities. It’s likely the numbers will drop again once people get back to work, and start doing what they used to do before the pandemic.

Most disappointing was Mills’ statement that hatcheries were “at the core” of Maine’s fisheries. This statement is misleading, dangerous and somewhat self-serving because the state government does the stocking.

The idea that stocking is the most important component of Maine’s recreational fisheries completely ignores what Maine is best known for: wild native fish. To promote the stocking of hatchery-raised fish, many of which are non-native, over wild native fish, including some found primarily or solely in Maine, is a disservice.

Stocking is a bandage. It is an economic black hole that diverts funds from habitat work, reclamation, land acquisition, public access and law enforcement. Stocking also lessens the amount of money we have available for matching-fund grants, which are typically associated with sustainable practices. And many anglers take more money in stocked fish than their license pays for. The system only works because it is subsidized by sportsmen who do not fish for, or harvest, stocked trout.

Stocking is a major source of non-native fish introductions in Maine. For example, from a historic baseline of only four waters, we now have more than 300 landlocked salmon fisheries, most of which were introduced via state-sponsored stocking or are being propped up by such. Maine also stocks rainbow trout and brown trout, the former of which is native west of the Continental Divide, and the latter from Europe, as well as hybrid splake. In some cases, stocking has resulted in non-target species introductions.

The true core of Maine’s recreational fisheries are our unique wild native fish, including our more than 580 legally designated “State Heritage Fish” waters, representing the largest inventory of legally recognized and protected wild native salmonid waters in the nation. Maine is also home to 90 percent or more of the remaining wild native lake and pond, river and sea-run brook trout in the nation. In addition, the state is home to the last Arctic char in the contiguous United States.

Self-sustaining native landlocked salmon and lake trout are found in only a few waters outside of Maine. Maine is also home to wild native striped bass and bluefish. And while you cannot currently fish for them, the state is home to the last native Atlantic salmon population in the nation. It is a federally endangered species that the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Maine Department of Marine Resources have refused to list as endangered, or even threatened, at the state level. This represents one of the most robust and diverse wild native fishery offerings in the east.

There are a number of reasons why using emergency federal aid for state hatcheries is a bad idea. It’s unfair to those who do not fish or those who do but don’t fish for stocked trout. Increasing hatchery funding also sends the wrong message: that the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife can do a better job than Mother Nature.

Personally, I can think of far better places to put our money than hatcheries right now.

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Bob Mallard has fly fished for 40 years. He is a former owner of Kennebec River Outfitters, a Registered Maine Fishing Guide and a commercial fly designer. Bob is a blogger, writer and author. He is also...