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There’s a category of online commentary called TIL, for “today I learned,” that provides a context for the writer to mention some intriguing piece of information they recently encountered. It’s basically a watered-down version of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” for the social media age, but it’s still fun. So let’s try it!

TIL that New Hampshire’s fish hatcheries exist partly because our aquatic bugs are too small.

This intriguing tidbit came from fisheries biologist Dianne Timmins during an interview about the state’s plan to upgrade its century-old system of hatcheries where trout are raised.

Those trout – brook, brown and rainbow – are released into lakes and rivers each year by the state Fish and Game Department to provide sport for fishermen, something that virtually all states and the federal government have been doing with a variety of fish species since the late 1800s.

There’s debate about whether stocking fish from hatcheries should be done at all since it can drive away native fish species and cause other problems, but we’ll leave that discussion for another column.

The state has six trout hatcheries, none closer to Concord than New Hampton. More than 1 million fish are raised and stocked into state waters each year, allowing us to sell fishing licenses to almost a quarter-million anglers.

But the hatcheries are old. Some were built at the start of the 20th century and the newest predates the Reagan Administration. In recent years they’ve run into criticism regarding pollution in their runoff.

When you raise a lot of beasts in a small place you end up with a lot of waste to be disposed of. Cattle, pig and chicken farms have to deal with this and so do fish hatcheries, not just from fish poop but also uneaten fish food. The state’s hatcheries have out-of-date designs, so despite some upgrades, they don’t do a good job filtering out this waste but mostly send it downstream. 

“They were never designed with any sort of thought of water quality,” said Timmins. “They thought, ‘well as long as you’re emptying into water, you’re fine.’”

(If you’re my age you’ll remember the slogan “the solution to pollution is dilution,” which like many slogans proved was right in the short term and wrong in the long term.)

The phosphorus in this fish waste in waterways can lead to algae blooms and other problems from excess nutrients. In 2018, the Conservation Law Foundation sued the state over phosphorus being emitted by the Powder Mill Hatchery in New Durham.

Even though the state wasn’t violating any of its EPA permits, the suit kicked off a long process of looking to upgrade the whole system. You can find details online at www.wildlife.nh.gov

Last week, the governor and Executive Council approved a $7.3 million contract for HDR Engineering to design a modernized facility to replace the fish hatchery at New Hampton, which was built in 1919, thanks in large part to the American Rescue Plan Act, the Biden administration’s COVID-19 relief package. They’re starting at New Hampton instead of New Durham for complicated reasons involving the lawsuit and statewide production quotas.

“This is something we’ve been needing to do for a long time,” said Timmins. “ARPA funding came at a great time.”

A new facility at New Hampton is estimated to cost around $50 million and will be completed by the end of 2026. Efforts will also continue to improve the other facilities, later on.

That’s all well and good but what about the bugs I mentioned earlier?

As part of background, Timmins mentioned one of the reasons that hatcheries were built so early: Our rivers and lakes were being fished out.

For a variety of reasons, including the desire to create “manly” outdoor pastimes in an increasingly urbanized world, fly fishing and other types of fishing became very popular in the 1880s. New Hampshire’s pristine waterways lured tons of fly rod-carrying folks from cities down south who wanted to catch big, meaty trout.

But our waterways soon were running short of desirable fish here in the Granite State.

“Because of our geology, we do not have a lot of calcium. A lot of our waters are limited in calcium, which is important for bug exoskeletons. If you have smaller bugs, you have smaller fish,” Timmins explained.

Selling fishing licenses is lucrative – even today, fees from sportsmen are a major source of income for New Hampshire’s wildlife programs – so ensuring a good supply of fish quickly became important. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department was founded in 1865 largely to address the program.

Their solution: Raise fish in tanks and occasionally dump them into rivers and streams. And so the hatchery program was born.

And that, my friends, is what I learned today.

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