The population dynamics of fisheries stock enhancement, and its potential for generating benefits over and above those obtainable from optimal exploitation of wild stocks alone are poorly understood and highly controversial. I review pertinent knowledge of fish population biology, and extend the dynamic pool theory of fishing to stock enhancement by unpacking recruitment, incorporating regulation in the recruited stock, and accounting for biological differences between wild and hatchery fish. I then analyse the dynamics of stock enhancement and its potential role in fisheries management, using the candidate stock of North Sea sole as an example and considering economic as well as biological criteria. Enhancement through release of recruits or advanced juveniles is predicted to increase total yield and stock abundance, but reduce abundance of the naturally recruited stock component through compensatory responses or overfishing. Economic feasibility of enhancement is subject to strong constraints, including trade–offs between the costs of fishing and hatchery releases. Costs of hatchery fish strongly influence optimal policy, which may range from no enhancement at high cost to high levels of stocking and fishing effort at low cost. Release of genetically maladapted fish reduces the effectiveness of enhancement, and is most detrimental overall if fitness of hatchery fish is only moderately compromised. As a temporary measure for the rebuilding of depleted stocks, enhancement cannot substitute for effort limitation, and is advantageous as an auxiliary measure only if the population has been reduced to a very low proportion of its unexploited biomass. Quantitative analysis of population dynamics is central to the responsible use of stock enhancement in fisheries management, and the necessary tools are available.