Fish lure and money.” That is the caption below a photograph on the Fish Production page of the National Fish Hatchery System website, which is only a part of the considerable Internet presence of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The photograph, part of a three-slide collection, includes a brightly colored bass lure positioned above $50 in cash. Behind them rise the green stems of tules stretching upward from the surface of an unidentified body of water. Next is a close-up photograph of a colorful rainbow trout that had been caught with a midge imitation, and last of all is a slide of a salmon in full spawning colors.
The message is clear: The National Fish Hatchery System provides anglers with recreational fishing opportunity, and recreational anglers generate revenue.
Reinforcing that message is a paragraph posted below the slide and reads as follows. “Since 1871, National Fish Hatcheries have been the primary asset in responding to conservation challenges. Producing fish continues to be an irreplaceable tool in managing or restoring fisheries, be they nongame or game fish species. Hatcheries complement habitat conservation. In doing so, we help provide recreation opportunities to America’s 34 million anglers who spend $36 billion annually in pursuit of their favored pastime.”
The Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery, located downstream from Hoover Dam on the Arizona side of Lake Mohave, has been part of the hatchery system since it began operation in about 1960. According to the FWS, it “was established to use the cold water released from Hoover Dam to raise rainbow trout for sport fishing.” And the first trout produced at Willow Beach were released in 1962. Initially the hatchery stocked trout from Lake Powell all the way to Yuma, Ariz., but in recent years has limited its stocking activities to Willow Beach, locations below Davis Dam and waters managed by tribal nations.
When the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973, the hatchery was given the additional task of working with threatened and endangered fish that are native to the Colorado River. In recent years that has involved the bonytail chub, the razorback sucker and the relict leopard frog.
It didn’t take long for the rainbow trout fishery at Willow Beach to earn a reputation for producing fish weighing well into the double-digit arena, and it soon became a destination for anglers from all over the Southwest. Striped bass eventually made their way downstream from Lake Mead and changed the nature of the Willow Beach fishery by limiting the number of large trout available to anglers, but that has not stopped anglers from coming. Some come in search of the huge stripers that feed on rainbow trout, but every week the shore is lined with those who come for the sole purpose of catching stocked rainbows.
All that is about to change, however, as the FWS has opted to end the recreational fish stocking program at the Willow Beach Hatchery, the very program for which the facility was built. That decision came after failures in the hatchery’s cold water delivery system in August and again in November resulted in the loss of more than 60,000 rainbow trout.
While the FWS reportedly attributes the termination of trout stocking activities to budget cuts and a lack of funding necessary to pay for needed repairs to the water intake system, some recreational anglers are voicing their opinion that the decision has more to do with political pressure to raise more endangered fish.
Either way, one thing is certain. “There’s no question this is going to impact anglers from Willow Beach south to the Bullhead City area,” said Chris Cantrell, fisheries chief for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Of course other species remain in Lake Mohave and the Colorado River, but without stocking efforts, rainbow trout will not consistently be available long term.”
If federal budget issues aren’t resolved soon, one has to ask whether the photo on the Hatchery System website should be changed to reflect the loss of angling opportunity and angler generated revenue.
Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.