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Conservation through Extreme Fish Stocking

When most people think of planes, they think of crowded airports, cramped seating conditions, and salty pretzels. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) thinks of fish–lots of them. A video published by the UDWR on Twitter shows thousands of fish being dropped out of a plane into a high alpine lake in the Utah backcountry. The fish are between one and three inches and 95% of them will survive the drop from the plane. These fish were all bred and raised in hatcheries and are now being stocked into the wild for the benefit of native populations and recreational fishing.

Fish falling from the sky is certainly an interesting phenomenon, however, just paying attention to the “extreme” fish stalking that is taking place ignores the much larger impact that fish stocking has upon the wilderness. For example, the UDWR stocks millions of fish per year using tools such as trucks, motorbikes, backpacks, and planes to place fingerling fish in desired locations across the state. Fish stocking is also practiced in many other states around the country and with breeds varying from trout to catfish. The National Fish Hatchery System facilities alone stocked over 135 million adult and juvenile fish into the wild in 44 states. This is in addition to individual hatchery systems that are maintained by many states and private commercial hatchery operations.

These numbers mean that almost any lake, river, or stream that is used for recreational fishing has almost certainly been affected by fish stocking. The traditional rationale behind this is summarized by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program’s (FAC) mission. It reads, “We work with our partners and engage the public, using a science-based approach, to conserve, restore and enhance fish and other aquatic resources for the continuing benefit of the American people.” Further the vision of the FAC is, “The Fish and Aquatic Conservation program will be a national leader in achieving sustainable populations of fish and other aquatic species and conserving and restoring their habitats for the benefit of current and future generations.”

These statements declare the purpose of fish stocking as a primarily conservationist undertaking. However, Douglass Thompson, a professor of geology at Connecticut College, argues in an op-ed published in The New York Times  that “We are devastating populations of marine species simply to support a freshwater hobby.” In addition, the Center for Biological Diversity says, “Nonnative trout stocking may be the single biggest factor in the decline of native fish species in the Sierra Nevada.”

The differences apparent in these statements highlights a much broader issue than fish stocking. The relationship between the sportsman and conservation has always been closely intertwined. However, at every step of the way there exists a tension between the two ideals that is clearly shown by the use of fish stocking as a tool for recreation and conservation.

Utah provides a perfect example of that tension. Mike Fowlks, the wildlife director at the UDWR, said in an interview with The Politic that “[Fish stocking in Utah] is primarily for recreation, but there is a pretty large conservation component for native trout.” In heavily used fisheries stocking is used to create and sustain fishing opportunities for anglers. In lesser used lakes and streams people such as Matt McKell, the Northern region cutthroat biologist for the UDWR, work to conserve populations of native cutthroat trout through stocking.

In Utah fish that are stocked for recreation are primarily non-native and are considered to be desirable sport fish, such as rainbow trout. Therefore, this type of stocking does not directly increase the number of native fish in the targeted lake or stream. The non-native fish that are stocked have been raised in a hatchery, but are bred to be sterile, meaning that in an ideal world any effects to the ecosystem that occur due to the stocking can be reversed by simply removing the fish. The addition of more fish and the enforcement of catch-and-release guidelines allows for sportsman to harvest stocked sport fish instead of native fish, which lets the native fish propagate throughout the habitat.

Fish that are stocked for conservation are usually native cutthroat trout. These fish are stocked in order to reclaim streams formally occupied by native trout that have been overtaken by non-native trout that are results of past sport fish stocking. McKell in an interview with The Politic says, of the relationship between conservation and recreation, “there has to be a balance. As an agency our mission is to be the guardians and trustee of the state’s wildlife. Part of my job is to provide sport fishing opportunities to the public. As a cutthroat biologist I have to balance what the public wants and what I think the resource, especially native trout are entitled to.” This is a rather new mindset of fish stocking. McKell says,“The shift from stocking little streams with any sport fish to provide recreational opportunities changed in the 80s or 90s. But by the mid 90s we adopted a policy of not stocking non-native trout species into areas that are important for native species.” Now the UDWR is focused not just on providing fishing opportunities to anglers but also in best preserving the native fish in Utah. In describing his role in fish stocking McKell also said this fish stocking is “in the name of conservation, solely. There will only be a handful of people who will ever think to fish in it.”

The advantage to recreational approach is that sportsman are able to harvest “better” fish (in terms of sporting value), while the native population of fish is allowed to grow and survive. The disadvantages mainly arise out of humans attempting to control nature. First, while fish are able to be bred sterile with a very high amount of certainty, some non-native fish are released into the wild capable of reproduction. In an interview, David Skelly, Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, said “It isn’t that the methods aren’t really effective, and it isn’t that the methods aren’t really impressive, the technology is impressive, it’s all impressive, but you just have this large number effect that if you put enough animals in there, you’ll have some non-sterile fish, and if they happen to find each other, you will have the same effect as if you didn’t go to all that trouble at all.” Second, even if the fish are not able to reproduce, it does not mean they do not have an ecological impact. The fish still require the use of many of the resources that the habit can offer. Skelly says, “Fish become apex predators…and it [fish being introduced] completely reshapes the ecosystem.”

After hearing the advantages and disadvantages it easy to question whether allowing recreational fishing at all is worth it. Without recreational fishers there wouldn’t need to be a discussion about the stocking of non-native fish and the issues that they create within the ecosystem. However, other issues would almost immediately arise due to the lack of funding that wildlife agencies from around the country would face, as James MacDonald discussed in an article titled “The Dark Side of Fish Stocking” for JStor Daily.

“It may seem ironic that agencies fighting tooth and nail against invasive species would deliberately introduce non-native fish into the environment, but the logic is pretty simple.” MacDonald wrote. “Anglers provide a lot of the capital that management agencies need through license fees and other purchases. In fact, angling/hunting groups are frequently strong allies in other complicated environmental matters such as pollution prevention or land conservation.”

In 2015 fishing license sales generated $700 million, all of which was used for conservation and restoration. If this funding source were to go dry the state of conservation in the United States would severely deteriorate.

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After looking at how fish stocking currently operates in Utah and has operated in the past, it is evident that some type of relationship is necessary between sportsman and conservationists as they both benefit and often are the same people.

This is not a new idea. George Bird Grinnell ‘87 Phd ‘80, a pillar of the conservation world during the 20th century progressive era, was one of the first people to promote such a relationship. Skelly says about Grinnell, “I think as much as anyone else, he is responsible for developing that linkage [between recreation and conservation]…[he] promoted the connection between the finite nature of the natural world…and the need for protect and for some way to bring people on board to make conservation of the world a priority for people who were increasingly being urban.”

Skelly continues, “he promotes this notion of using leisure time that became available to many more people to commune with the natural world and thereby value it. More or less that formula has continued right through…what you see in that video [of airplane fish stocking] is a continuation of that same thought process, that the natural world needs to include recreational opportunities for people because that reflects the values that they have for the natural world, and if those aren’t there the formula falls apart.”

Grinnell saw the effects that the principles of manifest destiny were having on the American landscapes, primarily the unrestrained use of resources, and wanted to make sure that their unspoiled beauty did not disappear. He along with others such as Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir persuaded people to enjoy nature’s existence and not just its exploitation. In many ways that same approach still exists today, although it is beginning to change as the number of people using the wilderness for non-harvesting means such as hiking and birdwatching increases.

“Sportsman and conservation go hand in hand,” Oswald Schmitz, Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, told The Politic. “They want to exploit the ecosystem, they want to hunt, they want to fish, but they also want to see those environments protected so that they have a lifelong ability and so that they can pass that on to their children and grandchildren. So I think that there is a strong ethic in the sportsman community to actually preserve ecological systems, so I think that it a perfectly reasonable to bring sportsman into the fold [of conservation].”

Utah anglers help provide and example of this conservationist ethic and many other benefits to the outdoor industry. Tracy Meyers is one of the tournament directors for the Ultimate Bass Team Tour in Utah. Meyers told The Politic that, “I’ve been fishing my entire life, I was born into it here basically, I’ve been fishing since I’ve been old enough to hold a fishing pole.” Because of this Meyers is heavily invested in the well-being of Utah’s fisheries and is involved with their maintenance and conservation. He says, “There’s been a lot of times when the fish and game has come to various clubs in Utah and actually requested our help. Nobody cares more about the fisheries than the people that use them. The fish and game has been great as far as understanding that. The people who have been organizing these clubs, and holding these events, these are the people that really care about the fisheries in Utah.”

Schmitz’s work as a professor is focused around what sustains ecological systems and what allows them to persist. He particularly focuses upon “how far and how much we can push systems and how much they can take without collapsing.” Therefore many of his beliefs about conservation are related to maintaining a balance between different stakeholders in nature.

“I would hope that down the road sportsman would take more interest in the science,” Schmitz said.  This is in reference to the many blunders that have happened throughout history as non-native species have been introduced into habitats and quickly turned into an invasive species. An example of such a mistake is the introduction of lake trout into Yellowstone lake. The lake trout preyed on the smaller native cutthroat trout which travel up steam to spawn and are a valuable food source for grizzly bears emerging from hibernation. Lake trout do not travel upstream which leaves the grizzly bears looking for a another food source such as elk calves.This seemingly small act was transformational for the food web and ecosystem not just of Yellowstone lake, but also the surrounding lands.

Fowlks is also a proponent of having a well educated base of sportsman and conservationists. He says, “We try everyday to educate folks who don’t know what our agency does what we are trying to do and what we are trying to do for conservation, an increasing awareness for how conservation is done in the United States and how it could be done better needs to be a discussion point.”

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Sportsman and conservation has had a lasting relationship within the United States and for the foreseeable future that is certainly not going to change. The question that then arises is how to best reconcile these interests and provide opportunities to sportsman while also practicing good conservation. Both conservationists and sportsman agree that the primary way to do this is through fostering a greater interest in wilderness and making sure that the general public is engaged and informed.

An engaged, informed, and conservation minded public is able to communicate to the government how to best use public lands to serve the interests of the people both now and into the future. They are also able to benefit off the land in a responsible, conservation minded way.  In interviews with The Politic both Skelly and Schmitz quoted the words of Dr. Malcom from Jurassic Park, “life finds a way.” Through working together sportsman and conservationists can make sure that “way” is the best possible for the preservation of outdoor opportunities and native species alike.