Stock more fish! That is one of the most common suggestions from the angling public when it comes to ideas about how to improve recreational fishing. Oh, that it was that easy.
The Florida Bass Conservation Center (FBCC) is the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) state-of-the-art freshwater hatchery in Sumter County. The FBCC recently hosted a Largemouth Bass Stocking Workshop to discuss past research and recent additions to the knowledge base that can help guide future stocking and research efforts. The FWC and university experts met to discuss how to integrate hatchery fish into plans to ensure sustainable quality bass fishing.
As early as 1948, Florida fisheries biologists realized that stocking small fingerling bass (about 1-1.5”) into lakes or rivers with existing fish populations did not generate substantial improvements for anglers. Part of the problem is how many of these small fish are immediately consumed by predators or die from handling stress, and another part deals with the fact that bass are very prolific spawners. Many times more eggs and fry (baby fish) are produced than could find enough food in nature if they all grew to adulthood. Each pair of spawning bass only needs a few of their hundreds of thousands of eggs to grow to adulthood to maintain the population. Consequently, Florida and most state fisheries agencies, typically only stock small Phase-I fingerlings into lakes that recently reflooded, experienced a major fish kill or lost a year class (which means a spawning season was disrupted often by unusual weather patterns), and where adequate habitat exists to sustain bass.
However in recent years, the FWC has pioneered several new bass rearingtechnologies at the FBCC and through other adjunct programs. These include developing production techniques to rear advanced Phase-II fingerling bass on artificial diets, including training them to eat pelleted food, developing new diets customized to their nutritional needs, and then retraining them to take live prey fish prior to being stocked.
The FBCC can control water temperature and amount of light that brood fish receive (fish key their spawning to the solar cycle of long summer days and shorter periods of light in winter) to cause bass to reproduce outside their normal spring spawning period. This practice, combined with feeding advances, allows biologists to produce Phase-II (4-6”) fingerlings for stocking when the most abundant supply of forage is available where bass will be stocked, for instance when baby shad are present.
It is clear from recent angler surveys pertaining to the draft Black Bass Management Plan (see MyFWC.com/BassPlan_Survey) that the public thinks FWC should stock more bass:
- “The opportunity to create an abundance of world class Bass fisheries in Florida is now. It’s common knowledge that Florida is a great place to bass fish but through proper management of the fisheries, i.e., stocking/drawdowns/and habitat replenishment Florida can be the world leader for trophy bass.”
- “I believe a stocking program would be beneficial, due to the year round pressure our lakes receive.”
- “… stock more bass in the 6-inch to 9-inch range. Stock more natural bait fish, of the appropriate size 1-inch to 3-inch.”
So what is the best approach to stocking bass and other fish to enhance recreational fishing? The answer seems to be that there are clear-cut benefits to stocking bass under specific conditions, such as after a major fish kill, when a new water body is flooded (such as water storage areas and irrigation ponds), or when Florida’s famous sinkholes refill. However, more research is needed to improve the return-on-investment when bass are stocked into lakes, with established bass or other predators, to ensure enough stocked fish are caught by anglers to justify the expenditure. In Florida, most money for fish management comes from recreational fishing licenses, excise taxes on fishing tackle (Federal Aid in Sportfish Restoration) and sale of “Go Fishing” largemouth bass conservation tags for vehicles and trailers. So the FWC is determined to make certain our fisheries resources and anglers benefit from every dollar.
The workshop concluded that more research needs to be conducted to refine timing of when bass are stocked, to determine the most cost-efficient size to stock them, and to study hatchery rearing techniques and stocking protocols. Stocking protocols might require fish to be released in more than one location with minimum habitat requirements (for example, water quality, temperature, aquatic vegetation and forage needs) to achieve desired success rates. We also want to know more about how wild versus hatchery bass behave in the wild as it pertains to finding food, avoiding predators, spawning, locating desirable habitat for themselves, and reacting to anglers. The workshop provided important preliminary data that was never previously available, but those results need to be replicated on a larger scale, and management plans pursued to reflect research results.
For specific genetic concerns associated with stocking, FWC biologists offered the following pro-con considerations.
On the pro-side, many biologists think the extra cost and time associated with addressing genetic issues is justified. After all, the Florida largemouth bass is a subspecies with unique characteristics that make it the premier freshwater sport fish in North America. Genetic conservation efforts not only protect the genetic integrity and diversity of our native subspecies by stocking only pure Florida largemouth bass into its native range (roughly the southern two-thirds of the state), put they also protect four distinct stocks of Florida largemouth bass within the state. Growing evidence shows that fish may be highly adapted to local environmental conditions because of natural selection. Mixing largemouth bass through stocking can break down local adaptations. Offspring of bass that are genetically different may have reduced growth, lower survival rates or other problems. For example, in the Midwest, hybrids of different largemouth bass stocks displayed reduced cardiovascular, swimming and respiratory performance relative to their parents, which researchers interpreted as loss of local adaptation. In addition, using large numbers of wild brood fish is necessary to maintain diversity and reduce inbreeding and domestication issues. Since stocking impacts may go undetected for generations and may be impossible to reverse, this group of scientists feels a conservative approach should be followed.
On the other hand – the “con” side – some managers feel that controlling production costs and having more bass available for stocking should be more important than genetic integrity. Keeping four separate groups of Florida bass affects the two state freshwater hatcheries by reducing production of fingerling bass for stocking because of limited hatchery space. It can also affect when fish are available for stocking, possibly missing optimal stocking times. Genetic restrictions also prohibit stocking pure Florida largemouth bass into North Florida, since a hybrid between the northern and Florida largemouth naturally exists in that area. This could limit trophy bass production for North Florida, since other southeastern states attribute trophy production to their Florida bass stocking programs.
In 2011, Florida freshwater fish hatcheries are slated to produce and stock nearly five million fish, including Phase-I and –II largemouth bass, bluegill, redear, crappie, catfish, striped bass and sunshine bass. Those fish will add tremendously to the enjoyment of more than 1.4 million anglers fishing the fresh waters of the “Fishing Capital of the World.” Each year and each day, FWC fisheries biologists are working to make that fishing better. If you’d like to comment on bass stocking issues, take the brief survey at.