Airdropping Live Fish Is A Thing And It Looks Magnificent

Utah is a place that features a wonderful and varied wilderness. Its mountainous terrain is home to many valleys, ponds, and streams. They’re a particular favorite of recreational anglers who visit the region for the great fishing. Oftentimes, however, these areas are fished out by visitors and need to be restocked. Other environmental factors also come into play in reducing populations, too.

A plane delivering live fish to the lakes of Utah via air drop. Source: Utah DWR

When this happens in some areas, it’s as simple as driving up a truck full of water and fish and dumping them into the lake. The problem is that many of these lakes and streams are difficult to access by foot or by road. Believe it or not, the most practical method found to deal with the problem thus far is dropping in live fish by air. Here’s how it all goes down.

Live Cargo

Typically, the fish dropped into these remote watercourses are quite young, and on the order of 1-3″ long. The fish are specifically raised to later be fished, and are also usually sterile, making it easier for Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources to manage numbers. When it comes time to restock remote lakes, waterbombing planes are pumped full of water and loaded up with fish.

A variety of trout and other species are specifically hatched to repopulate the streams and lakes of Utah for fishing. The fish dropped are usually just 1″-3″ long, with their small size and light weight helping them survive the drop due to their low terminal velocity. Source: Utah DWR

The small, lightweight fish tend to flutter down with the water, and survival rates are very high. Officials estimate that 95-99% of the fish dropped survive the fall into the water. While it sounds stressful, they say it can be less harmful to the fish than comparable road journeys. In these conditions, it can be difficult to maintain good oxygen levels for the fish for the long journey to the water.

The practice has been carried out for quite some time (Cached). Before the airdrop procedure became standard in the 1950s, fish were often loaded into old milk cans and carried up into the mountains on horseback. Other methods are still used depending on the area to be serviced. Buckets may be used, or backpacks filled with water and fish can be carried by hiking teams deep into the wilderness. In what Utah DWR biologist Matt McKell calls “extreme fish stocking”, ATVs and dirt bikes have been used to access remote waters to reload them with fish.

Small general aviation planes are used for the purpose, not dissimilar to those used for aerial waterbombing of wildfires. The planes can deliver 35,000 fish on a single flight, far eclipsing what can easily be achieved by other methods. The fish chosen for airdropping are typically those favored by anglers that are also well suited to the Utah environment. Fish raised for the purpose include rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, brook trout, tiger trout, splake and Arctic grayling.

Restocking as Environmental Control

Controlling the fish stocks is key to avoiding environmental problems in the lakes of Utah. Keeping native species happy and watercourses healthy requires careful management of both the areas themselves and the regulations surrounding them. This year, the Utah DWR has faced particular issues with high temperatures and low water levels as a drought rages on in the summer. It’s recently raised fishing quotastwice this month actually — to try to deal with the problem. Higher temperature waters store less oxygen, and low water levels exacerbate the problems. Fish numbers have to be reduced in turn, lest there be disease or mass dieoffs which could cause a bigger problem for authorities to clean up later.

While the Utah DWR may have its work cut out for it this summer, it’s well experienced and well armed to deal with the issues. Bombing lakes with a cargo of live fish might seem a little ridiculous on the face of it, but the procedure has over 70 years of good results to back up its effectiveness and it does the job well. Hopefully when water levels rise in the winter, the agency is able to resume topping those lakes up and keeping everything humming along smoothly.

52 thoughts on “Airdropping Live Fish Is A Thing And It Looks Magnificent

    1. Likely they just drop them at another location. But they don’t take that long to grow to 1-3″ so they can probably anticipate conditions far enough ahead to not have an excess.

    1. Utah covers most of its wildlife management budget through taxes on energy resource production. The anglers who will pursue some of these fish cover some of the cost through their fishing licenses. Some of it is also rationalized through tourism revenue.

      There are cascading benefits from projects like this for enhancing biodiversity. These fish are sterilized, but distributing these fish can help support distribution of predators like osprey, bears, etc.

      Not mentioned–> mosquitos. These fingerlings are a great reducer of mosquito larvae. A worthy expense, indeed.

    2. The lake by my house is stocked by our town but they don’t use tax money. They pay for the raising, care, and release of the fish all with the money from the fishing licenses. They also do everything locally which has add a fair amount of jobs in our very small town. So it’s basically a win/win for the town.

    3. Utah native here. Yes, it’s highly effective, they’ve been doing it since the 1950’s. With 70 years of experience I think it’s safe to say it’s well proven.

      And yes, it’s a _wonderful_ way to spend tax dollars. This is the wide open western US, and outdoor recreation is extremely important to a large portion of the population. Fishing & hunting license revenues provide the bulk of funding for the DWR.

      Utah’s DWR also maintains many hatcheries where fish are raised. The air drops are the tiny fingerlings for obvious reasons, but they also stock mature breeding stock by truck in some places.

        1. If you have a spot that is popular with wildlife that eats fish and fisherhumans you are going to need to add some stocks so the fish population is stable enough for the rest of the ecosystem. Making sure there is always enough for everyone.

          Making them sterile means you can dump a heap of little fish once and know you are not going to cause a huge population boom to massive bust – it keeps what you are adding from getting out of control on its own, and means you can introduce way more little fish in one hit rather than having to keep putting in a very managed amount of them based mostly on guesswork of how many fish are in the river…

          Plus many fish travel to breed and modern managed rivers can make getting beyond certain spots rather tricky for the fish, so in some places putting a fish species in that should be there in greater numbers but isn’t because we screwed something up downriver.. Keeps the natural order more controlled.

          1. That is great in theory @K, but no individual can know the state of the lake when they are there at all, there is no way to know if you are overfishing unless you are there so often that the trend in fish population is actually knowable, and by the time you can really see that trend though the noise in the data its probably already ‘overfished’ anyway…

            Plus its not just human fishers, lots of critters go for fish too, and with how managed much of the world has become they are largely drawn/driven to and therefore concentrated at the remaining areas to eat. And that same managed landscape also often has knock on effects on how well the purely natural processes that would restock the fish go. So some of the restocking has the same reason lots of bred in captivity rare birds of prey get released into the wild, areas of farm land are being rewilded or other native species get reintroduced to an area they used to be common in – giving nature a helping hand having disrupted the natural order of things too far in the first place.

  1. So we… gather fish somewhere and drop them out of an airplane in another location. Which makes ~95% of them surviving. That’s not a good survival rate for transportation. Imagine if that was the survival rate for human travel. Nobody would travel that way in large scale.

    Then the reason that we do this for these live and sentient beings is… to be able to raise fishing quotas so someone can… pull them out of the water with a hook and kill them for sports?

    Humans are weird.

    1. “Sentient” oh boy, here we go. Fish are not people. They are animals, so we can kill them for sport. They have no eternal soul, they are flesh robots. Get over yourself.

      1. I’m not saying any of that. Sure, fish and cows can feel pain and communicate. Cows can walk, fish can swim, they both have brains, etc. What I am saying is that they don’t have a soul like a human does. So please, re-read my original statement and get back to me on that, because last I checked, that makes a difference.

        1. I eat fish and other animals all the time. I wasn’t aware that the possession of a soul was a consideration. What is a soul? How do you know humans have one and animals don’t? Why does it matter?

        2. really!, only humans have souls. sounds like a god complex.
          humans are animals. only your perspective and the majority collective perspective of the human species makes you believe you hold some dominion over anything. Humans interpretations of any text for the most part comes form the view not of what god said or anyone says, rather from how can “I” make this benefit me and give me status above all. or maybe you need to tell yourself animals don’t have souls, because if they did [and they do] then killing them to survive would give you an existential crises due to the possible realization of how you and most of society come to decisions. Being kind and simple moral choices that support everyone rather than oneself are and will be much more appreciated. when those choices comes from sincerity rather than from fear of punitive action be it from society or representatives of people or some religion. sorry if it’s not comprehensible on major pain medication for an injury.

          p.s. this is not an endorsement of vegan or vegetarian . However it is an endorsement of the better treatment of animals and hopefully the realization of humanity to stop being over-consuming wasteful and greedy. every meal is a sacrifice that you should be thankful for and hopefully one you treated with respect and did not cause to suffer in its life and in its sacrifice of its life for yours.

          tld;r animals have a soul if humans have a soul. The universe is big and the human species is not the be all end all of the universe.

    2. Humans are not-very tasty animals.
      Fish are very tasty animals.
      Even the fish know the difference, that’s why they eat their own but you’ve never heard of a human being eaten by a trout have you?

      Does that answer all your issues?

      Also consider that those fish are farmed somewhere for the purpose. That’s an unaturaly large number of fish that are given the opportunity to hatch. And if they survive the fall (which most do) then they get to enjoy that life as long as they are capable of avoiding predators (including humans and bigger fish) and obtaining food. Lucky fish!

      Somewhere in one of those old lakes is a big, old fish that has lived it’s long life because somebody hatched it and dropped it in the lake.

    3. Probably a similar survival rate to river fish going over a natural waterfall and not dying by landing on the rocks.

      Also, as mentioned before, these fingerlings were tank raised for the purpose of being fished; they were raised with a much higher chance of survival than wild minnows; some will have a chance at a long life; and all of them will eventually rejoin the food chain, either via a hook and frying pan, or in a natural predator’s belly.

      If people get enjoyment out of catching them, feed themselves, and are willing to pay for a fishing license to do so, that’s just fine by me. And if they want to buy a $40,000 boat, a $100,000 cabin, and spend $1,000s of dollars in lures and gear in order to catch a couple of $20 meals, I don’t mind some of that money supporting local businesses.

      Everything living dies. Almost everything living in the wild dies violently as prey. Nothing makes it extra-special if it happens at the paw of an all-natural bear instead of a person with a hook.

    4. I wonder what the survival rate was for travel from Europe to the US or Australia. Could well have been less than 95% but people still did that. Then consider the survival rate during the slave trade across the Atlantic which I am sure was way lower than 95% although of course not voluntary.

  2. I can just imagine bears sitting on the ground with their mouths open when they hear the plane. Wouldn’t it be better though to use a helicopter bucket to transport the fish, you can deliver them more accurately and with less “causalities”.

    1. Helicopters are far more expensive to operate than comparable capacity fixed wing aircraft. I expect 5% loss is a “drop in the bucket” compared to paying for chopper time.

      1. A lot of (typically quite small) lakes that are being stocked are in the range of 7,000-10,000 feet high, and a helicopter’s efficiency takes a hit as the air thins out, so they would cost even more to operate.

  3. Along the Columbia, the sc’win have not had a good time since the dams went up. So they make arrangements. Trucks around the dams, I saw something about pneumatic tubes.

    Yes, it’s for fishing, but sc’win are a traditional food. The Syilx have done quite a bit to set up hatcheries, and the fry release is a big event in the spring. It’s a big thing when the sc’win returns to places they’ve not been since the early forties.

  4. Saltwater aquarium fish: requires highly controlled temperature, chemical, salinity, and lighting conditions. A slight variance in any of those factors can kill an entire tank. Also, not tasty.

    These guys: bombs away fu*kers! Also, very tasty.

    Conclusion: We’re keeping the wrong species as pets.

  5. There’s a great book by Anders Halverson called An Entirely Synthetic Fish that touches on the history of fish stocking, as well as the implications of putting rainbow trout on every continent. It also answers the questions the above posters have about the economy and funding of fish stocking, as well as why Colorado is called the “rubber fish capital of the world”.

    No affiliation, just a happy reader.


  6. I used to own a Luscome 8E airplane N1404B (about like a Cessna 140) That the right seat was removable and under it was a 6 inch butterfly valve leading out the bottom. That little plane was a fish bomber in a previous life.
    Similarly, during the summer brakes in college, my now wife used to clip the adepost (?) fin of fish in the hatchery. A fisherman that caught a fish in the WA lakes had to throw back any fish with a fin, since they were ‘Natural’ and not stocked. She said that they lost
    quite a few fish when trucking them around due to ‘Farting’ in the tanks. They were putting as much air in the water as they could, but the fish would get nervous and poison the water.

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