Many of the state’s fish start life not in a mountain stream, but in a little white box in New Hampton at one of six hatcheries in the state, where young fish are reared and reared before be released into the wild. Brown trout, rainbow trout and landlocked salmon are raised at these hatcheries and then delivered to state waterways, some arriving by truck and others by helicopter. So when people come fishing, they have a chance of getting a good catch.
Originally a response to overfishing, this century-old approach has drawn criticism from some conservationists and fishermen, as the state prepares to invest in the next generation of fish hatcheries.
With $55 million in federal relief funds, the state is preparing to update its hatcheries and build two new facilities with plans for a third, after facing a lawsuit over water pollution created by raising fish on farms. But some conservationists say these updates come at the expense of the state’s wild native fish population, which is harmed by the stocking of farmed fish.
“New Hampshire relies far too heavily on hatcheries, stocks too many wild fish, and does too little to protect wild native species,” said Bob Mallard, executive director of the Native Fish Coalition. “Increasing hatchery capacity will likely only make things worse.”
The $55 million would fund the construction of two new hatcheries, which could produce about 250,000 pounds of fish, according to the Fish and Game Department. He would also pay for the design of a third hatchery, capable of producing an additional 150,000 pounds of fish. The funding request was approved by the Executive Council at the end of April and the deadline to complete the project is 2026.
The demand for this fish comes from anglers, who expect big and plentiful fish, according to Dianne Timmins, division chief of inland fisheries at the Department of Fish and Game. And the department depends on fishermen to buy fishing licenses, which are the main source of funding. “If we’re not selling licenses, we’re not getting money, so it’s really an economic thing,” Timmins said.
About 200,000 anglers purchase licenses in New Hampshire in a typical year, generating about $6 million, according to the department.
But wild fish are usually only a few centimeters long and don’t appeal to anglers, Timmins said. “When you talk about satisfying an angler, he won’t want to go and catch 30 two-inch fish. They’re going to want to catch some big fish,” she said.
That’s what fish hatcheries can reliably provide: raising fish in captivity and then releasing them into state waterways. Hatcheries also provide broader economic benefits, according to the ministry, attributing $100 million in annual spending to recreational fishing and another $150 million to economic activity.
But stocking fish comes at a cost. Mallard said it wreaked havoc on wild native fish, suppressing natural reproduction and potentially introducing diseases, viruses and parasites. Because hatchery-reared fish are larger than wild fish, they become an apex predator, out-competing and eating juvenile wild fish, Mallard said.
Brook trout is a native wild species that is in decline, under pressure from overfishing, climate change and stocking. Once native to many streams and lakes, wild brook trout are now officially found in only a few lakes and ponds in the state.
Mallard, who has fished for 40 years, has witnessed the change. He grew up fishing wild native speckled trout in the White Mountains when they were more plentiful; now their populations have declined noticeably, Mallard said.
But he thinks the trend is reversible — as long as the state reduces its reliance on hatcheries and imposes stricter regulations on fishermen, such as tighter daily bag limits and tackle restrictions. Instead of allocating resources to hatcheries, Mallard said the money should be spent on habitat restoration, reclamation and land acquisition.
Timmins said the ministry is working in those areas while building new hatcheries for the future.
The Native Fish Coalition is a regional organization that works in 12 states. Of those states, Mallard said, New Hampshire has been among the most reluctant to change.
In addition to threatening native populations, hatcheries can also harm the water quality of nearby rivers and streams.
In 2018, the Conservation Law Foundation sued the state over the Powder Mill hatchery in New Durham, alleging the facility violated the Clean Water Act.
The facility allows water to flow through hatcheries where thousands of fish live nearby, causing feces to exit the facility and with it nutrients like phosphorus that can enter the water downstream , noted the foundation.
“This hatchery has been around for 75 years. We raised a lot of fish. It’s a lot of things downstream,” said Ted Diers, deputy director of the water division for the Department of Environmental Services.
“Some of the highest (phosphorus) numbers we’ve ever measured were downstream of (Powder Mill),” Diers said. The Berlin hatchery also has water quality issues; Diers said there were high levels of chlorophyll.
Downstream of the powder plant hatchery in the Merrymeeting River, high phosphorus levels have led to problems such as chlorophyll, algal blooms and cyanobacterial bloomswhich can be harmful to human health and worsen as waters warm due to climate change.
“It’s the ultimate irony to trash a river like the Merrymeeting River to produce fish to put in other rivers so people can go fishing for them,” said Tom Irwin, director of the Conservation Law Foundation of the New Hampshire.
“If we’re going to have these hatcheries, it’s a good thing to make sure they don’t pollute and degrade the water resources they flow into,” he said. The lawsuit filed by the Conservation Law Foundation is still pending.
The new facilities would be designed to limit nutrient entry into downstream waters by using a centrifuge design to remove waste while it is still solid, Diers said. The facilities are between 50 and 125 years old and need updating, he added.
New Hampton Fish Hatchery is one of them. Built in the 1920s, the facility still uses many of its original tanks, according to hatchery foreman Zach Curran. But knowledge has evolved over the past 100 years, and Curran said updating the facility would make it more efficient and reduce the labor involved in tasks such as tank cleaning.
Some conservationists disagree with this approach and would prefer to see the facilities closed.
“Fisheries are outdated. Maybe the storage system is also outdated. Maybe we shouldn’t do it anymore,” said Joan O’Brien, who sits on the board of Voices of Wildlife, an advocacy organization.
But according to Timmins, this result is unrealistic. “Storage will never go away,” she said. The department has made some changes to protect native fish, Timmins noted, such as no longer stocking headwaters that already tend to have a natural population of brook trout. In some of those areas, she said, they have also stopped stocking rainbow trout and brown trout, which are non-native species.
Fish hatcheries were originally built because overfishing had decimated the state’s fish populations as early as the late 1800s. Now those who want to remove them must advocate for more restrictions on fishing .
“It’s socially and politically easier to store fish than to protect what’s there because protecting what’s there requires concessions that fishermen don’t like,” Mallard said.