National Fish Hatcheries:

Classification of the Distribution of Fish and Eggs Needs Refinement

RCED-00-10: Published: Oct 15, 1999. Publicly Released: Nov 1, 1999.

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James E. Wells, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the activities of the National Fish Hatchery System, focusing on: (1) the funding level for the National Fish Hatchery System since 1992 and the funding level's impact on operations; (2) the production level at federal hatcheries; (3) the portion of production that is used for recovery and restoration efforts; (4) the distribution of total hatchery production into federal, state, and other waters; and (5) the issues related to health and disease problems at these hatcheries that pose problems for introducing their fish into the wild.

GAO noted that: (1) appropriations for operating the National Fish Hatchery System decreased about 15 percent from fiscal years (FY) 1992 through 1999 while the Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) overall budget increased during this period; (2) according to FWS personnel, these funding declines have resulted in unfilled staff positions and a drop in the distribution of fish and fish eggs; (3) about one-fourth of the positions at federal hatcheries are unfilled, and 1998 fish distribution was about 19 percent below 1992 levels; (4) in FY 1998, the National Fish Hatchery System distributed about 163 million fish, weighing a total of about 5.7 million pounds, and about 122 million fish eggs; (5) GAO's review of FWS' records showed that its data overstated the extent to which the distribution from federal hatcheries has gone for restoration or recovery efforts; (6) GAO found that 40 percent of the fish and 20 percent of the pounds distributed were used to assist in restoration and recovery efforts, not 80 percent of the fish and 56 percent of the pounds as identified by FWS; (7) moreover, federal hatcheries have assisted in the production of fish for commercial and recreational purposes to a greater extent than FWS indicated; (8) about three-fourths of the fish and half of the fish eggs were distributed to waters under federal jurisdiction, with most of the rest distributed to waters under state jurisdiction; (9) FWS officials and other fish health experts agree that much remains to be learned about the interaction of diseases between wild fish and hatchery-raised fish; (10) they stated that hatchery fish were not necessarily less healthy than wild fish but were more likely to show outward symptoms of disease, a tendency they attributed to the greater stress hatchery fish experience from changes in water temperature and quality, high population densities of fish, handling and transporting; (11) the hatcheries' responses to the health and disease problems in hatchery fish varied; (12) officials said many situations were alleviated with antibiotics or by reducing the stressful conditions, but, in some instances, fish or eggs were destroyed to avoid transmitting a problem to other fish; (13) GAO identified instances in which fish that may have been diseased had been released; and (14) hatchery officials said the latter course of action had been taken only with the concurrence of state officials and only in situations where a body of water was closed or where the specific disease was already known to exist.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: At the time the report was issued, the agency had already begun changing it classification system for hatchery production.

    Recommendation: To provide Congress with the information needed to evaluate the appropriate role of the National Fish Hatchery System, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service to take steps to refine the classification system for fish and fish egg distribution and help ensure that hatchery managers appropriately classify all fish and fish egg distribution by its principal purpose.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior


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