For most Americans, including the majority of anglers, fisheries managers, and environmental groups, fish don't count as wildlife. Fish are furless, featherless, cold, slimy, silent and, for most people, unseen. Their function in the natural world is mainly perceived as rod benders and table fare.
If that sounds harsh, consider stocked "tiger trout," wildly popular with anglers throughout the U.S. and Canada. They're created in hatcheries by crossing not just species but genera— brown trout from Europe with brook trout from North America. Google "tiger trout," ignoring everything by me, and you'll find only effusions about their alleged "beauty."
Consider also "golden rainbows" (aka palomino trout), all the rage across North America. In 1955 a pigment-impoverished female rainbow trout turned up in a West Virginia state hatchery. So enamored were fish managers with her banana-hued flanks they reared her in a separate tank, fertilized her eggs with milt from normal males, then selected and cultured increasingly off-colored fry. By 1963 they had enough of these garish fish to start widespread stocking. Despite West Virginia's 500 miles of native brook trout streams, the "golden rainbow" is depicted on the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources logo.
Artificially concocted hybrids like tiger trout and genetically altered fish like golden rainbows attest to what's lacking in the general public and fishing public: respect for fish as wildlife and what George Bird Grinnell, editor of the old sporting weekly Forest & Stream, called "a refined taste in natural objects."
In 1970, when I signed on as an "information and education" officer with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Game, I assumed that my job would be to inform and educate. I was wrong. It was to promote ongoing programs, whether or not they served the long-term best interests of sportsmen. We stocked genetically impoverished hatchery trout on top of our few remaining natives. We even adorned some of these hatchery fish with tags that could be exchanged for such prizes as tackle boxes.
While I was there we changed our name to Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, but it wasn't until long after I'd left that nongame started receiving attention. With management of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals (everything society calls "wildlife") the agency has progressed light years from the 1970s; in fact it's a national leader. But in 2018, about the only thing that's changed with trout stocking is the addition of tiger trout.
One might suppose that the environmental community would defend native fish and the vital role they play in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, but it rarely does so. For example, the stated mission of the Adirondack Council, which generally does excellent work, is protecting "natural communities." Because it rightly sees loons as symbols of wilderness, there are two loons on its logo. But it doesn't recognize native brook trout that share loon habitat and help sustain loons as part of "the natural community." So it blocked New York brook trout managers when they attempted to eliminate invasive nonnative fish with rotenone (the only tool available). It wasn't so much rotenone it objected to as "wilderness disruption" with "noisy" motorboats briefly needed to apply rotenone. When I confronted the council's public affairs director, he asserted that the managers' sole motive was "to create sporting opportunities."
Another environmental outfit, Wilderness Watch, aims to "preserve wilderness" and frequently succeeds. It features a grizzly on its logo. Wilderness Watch sees grizzlies as icons of wilderness, but not imperiled native fish. So it has no problem challenging and frequently blocking native-trout recovery throughout the West, basing its opposition entirely on popular misconceptions about rotenone. Here's how it dismisses efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to keep the threatened Gila trout on the planet: "It is both sad and ironic that it was Aldo Leopold who convinced the Forest Service to protect the Gila as our nation's first wilderness in the 1930s—now, it is in danger of being converted to a fish farm for recreationists." That's like proclaiming that whooping cranes are being saved merely to pleasure birders.
Wild & Valuable
Now there's a new nonprofit NGO, comprised of passionate anglers, that seeks to change society's perception of fish from playthings and food, to wildlife and parts of beautiful but poorly understood machinery we tinker with at our peril.
That group is called Native Fish Coalition (NFC). It believes that hatchery fish should never be stocked on top of native fish or even where they might have access to native fish. Hatchery fish, it notes, are products of unnatural selection. They're conditioned to crowded, coverless, cement raceways that erode fins. Instead of avoiding moving shadows they're attracted to them because they're often fed by hand. And they become easy pickings for avian predators because, even when fed by machine, they're conditioned to feed on the surface. They are everything wild fish aren't, so they do poorly in the natural world. And when superimposed on wild fish they compete with them for food and space, disrupt spawning, and sometimes pass on their inferior genes.
When hatchery fish naturalize they regain some of what they've lost, but they also can degrade native ecosystems. On a few waters, naturalized trout threaten endangered fish and frogs. So, following their legal mandate under the Endangered Species Act, agencies like the National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state game and fish agencies have been reducing (but far from eliminating) nonnative trout. Opposition comes primarily from the angling community.
Battles over nonnative trout control have been avoided by organizations specializing in salmonid conservation; participation would alienate many of their members, donors, and sponsors. NFC, on the other hand, is not about fishing; it's about native fish—all native fish. NFC will always defend natives over nonnatives no matter how much members love to catch the nonnatives or how incapable the natives are of bending rods.
The apt shibboleth "take care of fish and the fishing will take care of itself" has largely been replaced with "take care of fishing and the fish will take care of themselves." The catch-and-release message that saved so many of our native populations from severe degradation, or worse, is being challenged as somehow elitist, extreme, or unnecessary, even by some fish conservation organizations.
Native fish are now missing from most of the nation's best-known trout water. You won't find them, at least in significant numbers, in the Beaverhead, Bighorn, Madison, Missouri, Henry's Fork, Fryingpan, or South Platte rivers, or Hebgen, Quake, Henry's, or Ennis lakes, to mention just a few. Nor have the fabled trout waters of Yellowstone National Park escaped the nonnative plague. Slough Creek and the Lamar and Yellowstone rivers are infested with rainbow trout; and Yellowstone Lake, the most important native cutthroat lake in the county, is under assault from lake trout.
In the East, the storied Battenkill and Neversink rivers; Willowemoc and Esopus creeks; Maine's St. John River, Moose River, and Rapid River; and Moosehead Lake, Belgrade Lakes, and Rangeley Lakes, again to mention just a few, are now polluted with naturalized nonnatives.
Still, native trout remain in natural habitats; you just need to know where to look and be willing to work a bit harder to find them. You'll encounter them in waters like the Snake River and Flat Creek in Wyoming, Maine's Rapid and Magalloway Rivers, small ponds deep in the Maine woods, and headwater rills across the nation. But many of these have nonnatives as well.
Maine Arctic charr are not popular sport fish, but the Native Fish Coalition believes natives have intrinsic value as wildlife. (Photo by Bob Mallard)
Native fish are strong fighters, but NFC members don't want to "fight" them so much as join them because, in the good words of John Voelker, they "will not—indeed cannot—live except where beauty dwells." For NFC members catching and releasing, say, a landlocked Arctic charr in Maine (the only contiguous state that still has them) is the equivalent of a birder encountering a painted bunting or Ross's gull.
Again, NFC supports and defends all native fish, but it formed in Maine to first address landlocked Arctic charr, pond-dwelling and sea-run brook trout, and the nation's last wild Atlantic salmon. It then added chapters in New Hampshire and Vermont. Its goal is to work its way south, providing a local presence throughout the brook trout's native range. NFC is also focused on, but not limited to, stream-dwelling brook trout, landlocked salmon, lake whitefish, cusk, and striped bass.
While the threats to native fish are many, NFC's founding members recognized that anglers and the managers who serve and sometimes indulge them are mostly responsible for the illegal and legal spread of nonnative fish. Nonnatives, one of the biggest threats to native fish, can degrade entire ecosystems, often beyond repair. NFC has undertaken major sign projects to educate and inform anglers about this danger.
Chemical reclamation is important where needed. But it's not management; it's CPR. Preventing invasive fish introductions is the better option. And law enforcement is far less effective than law abiding. No fine, jail time, gear confiscation, or license suspension can offset the introduction of nonnative fish or the loss of, say, wild, breeding-age Atlantic salmon.
Research is critical as well. Advocates for native fish can't act if they don't know what to do. NFC has been working with the University of Maine to help replace aging equipment used in its important and ongoing Arctic charr study at Floods Pond, a municipal water supply closed to fishing. Floods is the only place biologists can monitor a wild, native Arctic charr population without having to deal with the impacts of angling, recreation, and land use.
NFC sets special priority on management policy. It is working to strengthen and expand Maine's State Heritage Fish law, and New Hampshire's Wild Trout Management program. And it looks to establish formal wild trout programs in all states that sustain native trout.
Native fish matter—not just for their appeal to anglers, but for what they are. They're sustaining parts of earth's biodiversity. They manage themselves. They are indicators of clean water, uncompromised land, ecological health, and good stewardship. They belong. They're wildlife.
Mission of the Native Fish Coalition
NFC seeks to upgrade the image of native fish from public commodities to functional parts of ecosystems. No other group has ever attempted to do so. That said, great work on behalf of specific native fish or specific native genera is underway by such groups as the Downeast Salmon Federation, Atlantic Salmon Federation, Sea-Run Brook Trout Coalition, Trout Power, Protect Rhode Island Brook Trout, and, in the Pacific Northwest, Native Fish Society, Wild Fish Conservancy, and the Wild Steelhead Coalition. But NFC is unique in that it works for all natives from darters to sculpin to Arctic charr to Atlantic salmon.
NFC believes that no lake, pond, river, or stream is truly restored, healthy, or whole until its full complement of native species is intact and it's devoid of nonnative and hatchery fish. While this is not always attainable, it's our goal.
NFC strives to bridge gaps among anglers, fishing and sporting groups, fish conservation organizations, environmental organizations, state and federal resource agencies, water protection organizations, outdoor media, and educational institutions.
NFC members enjoy catching naturalized nonnative trout, in some cases even stocked trout; and we have nothing against either except when they threaten native fish. NFC doesn't pick fights we can't win; there's simply too much to do. So, while we promote catch-and-release, we don't lecture anglers who legally kill and eat native fish. Sometimes we kill and eat native fish ourselves, but we target species that can take, even benefit from, exploitation—bluegills, crappies, yellow and white perch, for example.
NFC is an apolitical, all-volunteer, grassroots, donor-funded, 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Many of our board and advisory council members also belong to other organizations. Our goal is to work with anyone who shares at least part of our vision. NFC is made up of academics, scientists, unpaid senior staff, media professionals, guides, outfitters, anglers, and environmentalists. You can learn more about us at NativeFishCoalition.org.
Ted Williams was conservation editor and columnist for Fly Rod & Reel for 30 years until its demise in 2017. He is the national chair of Native Fish Coalition (nativefishcoalition.org) and writes the monthly "Recovery" column for The Nature Conservancy's online magazine Cool Green Science (blog.nature.org/science/profiles/ted-williams).