Stocking Programs Persevered Through The Pandemic
The COVID-19 Pandemic brought many challenges to our lives over the last two years. The Division of Fish and Wildlife appreciates your support while our hatcheries continued to operate without significant impact on the great fisheries that you enjoy. All pre-pandemic fish stocking targets are being met or surpassed. Anglers can rest assured that the future of freshwater fishing in New Jersey is as bright as ever.
On March 15, 2020, the Hackettstown Hatchery crew had just completed the Northern Pike broodstock collection and was preparing for Walleye and Muskie egg collection when New Jersey announced the closure of state offices, directing most staff to work remotely.
Hold on. A hatchery is a fish farm. Like all farms, the animals (fish) must be fed, cleaned and cared for 24/7/365. Hatchery staff instantly adapted to the changing circumstances with innovation and perseverance.
The pandemic required social distancing protocols that would prevent further broodstock collection. How could we move forward with our fish rearing programs? Solution: By coordinating with our colleagues at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, New Jersey traded our surplus Northern Pike fingerlings and Channel Catfish eggs in return for Pennsylvania’s surplus Walleye eggs and Muskie fingerlings. Smart and efficient decisions like this helped to maintain hatchery production successes. Ultimately, over 1.6 million warmwater fish were stocked throughout late summer and into the fall of 2020. Comparable actions in 2021 resulted in 3.2 million warmwater fish being distributed for anglers.
Faced with similar challenges — and with raceways full of several year classes of trout — the Pequest Trout Hatchery continued to raise Rainbow Trout for all annual stocking programs. Over 500,000 trout were stocked before Opening Day during 2020 and 2021, compared with the 183,000 typically stocked during a regular pre-season. A total of 589,390 trout were stocked in the spring of 2020 and 597,150 in 2021. The annual spring baseline of 570,000 was exceeded in both of these pandemic years.
An accelerated stocking schedule allowed staff to move trout out of the raceways, onto trucks and into New Jersey waters as quickly as possible to reduce the number of loading days, thus minimizing close interactions among staff and with the public. If a virus outbreak were to occur among our staff, that would adversely affect the tightly orchestrated production cycle, putting future stocking seasons at risk.
Staff wore masks and remained socially distanced, including driving in separate vehicles for each stocking run. The decision to modify the season and not disclose specific stocking dates for individual waters was to protect staff and to reduce the density of anglers at any one place or time.
Our strategy of opening the Trout Season for catch and release prior to the usual Opening Day was designed to create a “soft opener” whereby anglers who are not focused on harvesting fish would get out early, thus reducing the concentration of anglers typically seen on the opener. Our early Catch and Release Season coincided with New York’s opener, thus encouraging in-state angling at a time when interstate travel was discouraged.
This massive effort was carried out by dedicated staff from across our agency, especially those who raise and stock the fish. Anglers had mixed responses to the temporary changes. Some longed for the traditional program and a sense of normalcy while many expressed gratitude for the abundance of trout and the early Catch and Release Season. Overall, most anglers appeared to understand the issues, were grateful for the opportunity to get out and fish and were thrilled with the abundance of trout — not only during the pre-season, but also well into late May.
At the time this passage is being penned, pandemic-related uncertainties remain. One thing you can count on is that New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife continues to work for you, the angler, to ensure plentiful and healthy fisheries — now and for future generations.