An Entirely Synthetic Fish by Anders Halverson

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An Entirely Synthetic Fish
By Anders Halverson
Yale University Press 2010

This book could change your angling future. It should change the way you think about fish and fishing. It’s a “must read” for all Maine anglers.

Anders Halverson, in his book An Entirely Synthetic Fish, explains “how rainbow trout beguiled America and overran the world.”

Maine’s new flirtation with rainbow trout demands a better understanding of that fish and its impacts around the world. More importantly, it’s time for more Maine anglers to respect and protect our native fish.

Sure, that new painted-up hussy is attractive and tempting, but it’s never a good idea to abandon the one you brought to the dance. Appreciate what you’ve got, Maine anglers!

In state after state, rainbow romances drove anglers and fisheries managers to toss aside native species in favor of the painted hussy. It grew fast, jumped out of the water when hooked, and was easy to catch.

Today, two out of every three fish in Colorado’s famed waters are non-natives. Most of them are rainbow trout.

Since the 1870s, rainbows have been introduced in every state and at least 80 countries on every continent except Antarctica. Today one of the fastest growing sports in China is fishing for hatchery rainbows.

A few years ago, at a conference for journalists hosted by the Property and Environmental Resource Center in Bozeman, Montana, I struck up a friendship with Patty Limerick, Director of the Center of the American West. Patty told me about one of her new projects, a study of hatcheries and fish stocking.

Alverson’s book is the result of that study. Limerick’s foreword is worth the price of the book, especially her application of The Federalist Papers to today’s controversy over fish stocking.

Mistakes

Oh, what have we done? What have we done?

You’ll ask yourself this question dozens of times as you read this provocative and exhaustively researched account of the spread of rainbow trout to every part of the world. Enormous mistakes were made – and amazingly, continue to be made today.

Shame on us if we don’t learn from our mistakes.

While some fisheries managers work to rid their waters of rainbows, these fish remain the most commonly stocked in the United States.
Alverson reports that state and federal agencies typically stock about a billion fish, approximately 40 million pounds each year. More than half are walleyes. But by total weight, rainbows are the most preferred species, with about 100 million quarter-pounders stocked each year in the U.S.

Sprinkled throughout the book are examples of the many mistakes we’ve made with fish stocking. One huge mistake fascinated me, perhaps because Maine is using rotenone to kill all the fish in Big Reed Pond and re-establish bluebacked trout there.

For years we were enamored with the use of rotenone, a powerful piscicide, to kill “undesirable species of fish.”

The love affair started in California in 1952 when fisheries managers poisoned all fish and aquatic invertebrates in 300 miles of the Russian River and its tributaries so they could introduce other species.

As Alverson reports, “Under the Dingell-Johnson program alone, twenty-five hundred miles of streams and 225,000 acres of lakes were poisoned in thirty-four states, and that was likely just the tip of the iceberg. Many other lakes and streams were treated using other funding sources.”

In what I’d call Death on the Green River, in September of 1962, 450 tons of fish and aquatic invertebrates were poisoned.

“The Green River and its tributaries were virtually devoid of visible life,” write Alverson, “an ecological clean slate. The operation, in other words, was a complete success.”

The government poisoned all the fish in one of the biggest watersheds in the West, risking extinction for many of the river’s native species, so it could stock nonnative rainbow trout.

Four of the species killed in that operation ended up on the federal Endangered Species List. We have spent more than $100 million so far trying to save these fish from extinction.

Alverson’s parting shot is sobering.

“I still prefer catching not just wild fish, but natives… people can catch hatchery rainbows anywhere… someday, such unique opportunities surely will prove to be a much greater draw for anglers, and thus a more powerful engine for local economies.

“I do believe, though, that those who promote the conservation and restoration of native species should do so with a good understanding of history and concomitant sense of humility. People have been a part of this world for a long time. There’s no going back to the way it was, even if it were possible to define it.

“Reading through the letters and public pronouncements of the men who were most responsible for spreading nonnative species like rainbow trout throughout the world in the nineteenth century, I have been struck by the similarity of the rhetoric to those who promote native species restoration today. They, too, were sure they were doing the right thing for the world.”

You’ll be doing the right thing if you buy and read this book, and get involved in the campaign to respect and protect Maine’s native fish species.

“This is the last generation of troutfishers. The children will not be able to find any. Not that trout will cease to be. They will be hatched by machinery and raised in ponds, and fattened on chopped liver, and grow flabby and lose their spots. The trout of the restaurant will not cease to be; but he is no more like the trout of the wild river than the fat and songless reed-bird is like the bobolink. Gross feeding and easy pond-life enervate and deprave him. The trout that the children will know only be legend is the gold-sprinkled living arrow of the white water; able to zig-zag up the cataract; able to loiter in the rapids; whose dainty meat is the glancing butterfly.”

Colorado preacher and politician Myron Reed, over a century ago. From An Entirely Synthetic Fish by Anders Halverson.

More Facts and Revelations From The Book

When it last updated the list in 2008, the American Fisheries Society considered 700 taxa (species, subspecies, or unique populations) of North American fish to be endangered, threatened, or of special concern – about 40 percent of the total. And that doesn’t include the 61 fishes that slipped into extinction in the twentieth century. In fact, freshwater fishes are some of the most seriously threatened vertebrates in the world, second only to amphibians.

A few more experiments over the next few years confirmed it: stocked fish were devastating their wild cousins, wherever they were placed. Stop stocking and the population of wild rainbows would explode by up to 800 percent; the number of wild browns would easily double. And not only that, the wild fish were bigger, more fun to catch, and tastier to eat.

Some states, like Wisconsin, began reducing or even eliminating stocking in certain streams at about the same time as Michigan and Montana, largely for economic reasons… Eastern states like Pennsylvania followed suit in the 1980s, setting aside hundreds of miles of stream for wild trout. And more recently Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, and California have joined the movement, reducing their once prolific stocking programs and reserving thousands of miles of rivers for wild trout.

By 2001, a department that used to stock more than one thousand lakes in the Sierra Nevada every year was stocking fewer than twenty… and perhaps most significantly, the California Department of Fish and Game began drawing up plans to eradicate the fish from some of the lakes that it had been stocking only a few years earlier.

Rainbow trout genes have infiltrated most other subspecies of cutthroat trout in the American West, their tendrils growing every year. Some fish, like the Alvord cutthroat, have already gone extinct due to such hybridization. Others, including California’s fabled golden trout, are dangerously close.

What effects (are) hybridization… having on the fish… the experiments… showed that hybrid fish grew more slowly and were dramatically less fit than their purebred cousins. Incredibly, in one study conducted on wild fish in a small tributary of the Flathead, they found that even trout that were as little as 20 percent rainbow (80 percent westslope cutthroat) were at a significant disadvantage.

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