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Rumor of stocking moratorium ruffles W.Va.’s muskie anglers

JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Muskellunge stockings aren’t needed on the Elk River, where natural reproduction supports an excellent fishery. State officials are wondering if stockings should be halted on other streams where reproduction takes place.

A rumor that West Virginia fisheries officials might put a halt to muskellunge stockings is sending ripples through the state’s muskie-fishing community.

Internet forums have been abuzz with speculation that the Division of Natural Resources is preparing to impose some sort of moratorium on river- and stream-centered stockings. Chris O’Bara, the DNR’s fisheries research supervisor, acknowledged that biologists are looking at ways to more efficiently distribute muskies raised in the state’s hatcheries, but dismissed the notion that a wholesale moratorium might occur.

“I don’t think we’re even at the point of considering a moratorium now,” he said. “What we’re doing is evaluating our stocking program, from small impoundments to reservoirs to rivers, trying to determine whether natural [muskie] reproduction is taking place in those waters and how many people are fishing those waters.”

The goal, O’Bara added, is to make sure hatchery fish “get placed in the best possible locations.”

Placement wouldn’t be an issue if hatcheries could churn out unlimited numbers of young muskies, but they can’t. Infrastructure problems at the state’s warmwater fish-rearing facilities are causing fisheries officials to re-think the DNR’s stocking programs.

“Our hatcheries have issues, and we’re struggling to try to meet our quotas,” said Jeff Hansbarger, a district biologist and muskie specialist. “This year, we’re OK. All the stockings will be completed as we’ve allotted them. But long-term, we’re going to have to figure something out.”

DNR officials say they want muskie fishermen help with the figuring-out process.

“We’ll be getting public input in lots of different ways,” O’Bara said. “We plan to use online surveys, social media, and we’ll be having sit-down meetings with people at several locations throughout the state.

“We’ll be coming out with an online survey within the next month, and the next four months will be our information-gathering period. At the end of that time, we’ll pull all the information together and start developing a thought process about our stocking plan.”

A key element in that thought process will be natural reproduction. Streams where muskies maintain self-sustaining populations without hatchery assistance will likely receive fewer fish, or will be taken off the stocking list altogether.

“If people don’t think it’s possible to have a great fishery without stockings, they need only to look at the Elk River,” Hansbarger said. “Outside of a few surplus [muskie] fry that were placed there in the 1980s, it has not been stocked. It’s one of the most heavily fished muskie waters in the state, and it still has plenty of fish.”

Stockings helped create a thriving muskie population in the New River, but once the fishery became self-sustaining, biologists dramatically reduced the number of hatchery fish placed there.

“The fishing must still be pretty good, because no one seems to be complaining,” Hansbarger said.

O’Bara said the upcoming public meetings should help DNR officials determine where reproduction is taking place, and to understand the amount of pressure anglers might be putting on those fisheries.

“Where we’re getting good levels of natural reproduction, it would be impractical to continue to stock those waters,” he explained. “Instead, we want to focus our stockings where the fish will give anglers the very best bang for their buck. That’s going to take a lot of careful planning, and we want people to be involved in the development of that plan.”

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