Where You Can Put Your Trout!

Hatchery trout have their place, but in California, as in most states, managers aren’t always sure where that might be.

by Ted Williams

“Trout Plants Halted--It’s a Load of Bullfrogs!” shouted the San Francisco Chronicle.  Like many hook-and-bullet writers in California and around the country the paper’s respected outdoor columnist, Tom Stienstra, was in high dudgeon over a court-ordered settlement forcing the state to cease stocking trout in some 175 lakes and streams while it conducts environmental review under the mandate of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  It could be that this sets a national precedent.

The settlement, which mainly affects the northern part of the state, actually came as a relief to the California Department of Fish and Game because an earlier order, on Nov. 6, had shut down stocking over a far wider area.  Fish and Game director, Donald Koch, went so far as to proclaim that he and his colleagues were “pleased” by the compromise.  It issues from a successful lawsuit brought in 2006 by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Pacific Rivers Council which fretted about possible impacts to such fauna as frogs.

One reason Stienstra and most of his fellow outdoor scribes are unmoved by the plaintiffs’ arguments is that the center and, to a much lesser extent, the Pacific Rivers Council have squandered their credibility.  While the center does a lot of good with its environmental litigation, it could do lots more if it slowed down and worked harder on discovery.  Too frequently its battle cry has been “Fire, Ready, Aim!”  For example, ignoring decades of peer-reviewed science and relying instead on pernicious twaddle about rotenone hissed into its ears by co-litigant, Nancy Erman, it shut down recovery of the world’s rarest trout--the Paiute cutthroat--by suing the Forest Service (See “State of our Trout,” Nov.-Dec. 2008).  Then it published this untruth about the only available tool to save the Paiute from extinction: “Rotenone use poses the potential for irreversible damage to stream ecosystems and loss of other non-target native species.”  Erman seduced the Pacific Rivers Council as well.  In a letter to the Forest Service (with a cc to Erman) it successfully urged the agency to suspend Paiute recovery, claiming that past rotenone treatments had failed, when those treatments are very likely the only reason the fish remains on the planet.

Stienstra, a fine reporter with a well-earned reputation for getting things right, lamented as follows:  “Try to imagine the early-summer flyfishing out of a canoe at pretty Gumboot Lake in the Trinity Divide, casting black leeches, strip retrieve, and catching a trout on nearly every cast in the last two hours of light.  Must have released 30 or so.  It will never [my emphasis] happen again.”

Even at this writing (early January) the bile cascades across the internet.  The San Francisco Chronicle received the first four of the following emails, the Santa Cruz Sentinel the last four.  But the comment boxes of most any newspaper that covered the story are rife with similar posts, and the fishing blogs are overflowing:

“If these ‘environmentalists’ really wanted to help the poor animals, they would commit suicide to leave more room.”

“I strongly urge all fisherpersons to catch frogs and eat them.”

“What's next? Are they going to outlaw walking along the shoreline to prevent us from stepping on the frogs?!”

“How the powerful Dept. of Fish and Game can buckle under to the ramblings of third world tree huggers boggles the mind!”

“Let'S deport all the environmentalists, since they're not real Americans anyway!”

“Maybe it's time to round up the environmentalists, make 'em wear a big green E on their clothing and force them to live in the tree tops.”

“I hope all of you greenies are happy.  This shutdown of the stocking of trout will kill the fishing at Loch Lomond.”

“I'm seething just under the surface at being held hostage by two eco-weenie organizations.”

In expressing his pleasure with the court-ordered settlement Director Koch asserted that it permits “stocking in a number of areas where the communities depend on fishing,” implying that fishing depends on stocking.  In California, as in most of the nation, that’s the general assumption.  But in decent trout habitat good fishing usually depends on not stocking.  Montana proved this by excluding hatchery trout from a section of the Madison River.  Four years later, in 1974, the number of large trout (three years and older) was up 942 percent.  As a result of that experiment the state permanently stopped stocking flowing water.

It’s true, however, that many of the high-elevation lakes and streams in the Sierra Nevada that now provide fishing (on which few if any communities “depend”) were naturally fishless; and there indeed would be no fishing had they not been stocked at least once.  But many of these lakes and virtually all the streams had sufficient spawning habitat to support self-sustaining trout populations following initial stocking.  For years Fish and Game stocked the lakes willy-nilly, often suppressing wild, naturalized trout populations even as it wasted sportsmen’s dollars.  And, while there’s been major reform, there’s a long way to go.  Dr. Roland Knapp, a biologist with the University of California, Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory, told me this: “I keep hearing these complaints from anglers: ‘God, the fish used to be so big in Lake X, and they’re getting smaller and smaller.’  Then, in the same breath, they say, ‘We want increased stocking.’  But increased stocking is what’s making those fish smaller and smaller; it’s depleting their food resource.”

Because these mountain lakes were fishless, unique ecosystems with such interlinked parts as invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians and birds evolved in and around them.  One of these parts, the mountain yellow-legged frog, now flirts with extinction largely because its tadpoles are preyed upon by alien trout.  After World War II, when the department went to aerial stocking, the decline became critical.  By the late 1990s it was obvious to researchers that trout stocking was having a major impact not just on mountain yellow-legged frogs but on high-elevation amphibians throughout the West.  To its credit California Fish and Game has recently undertaken some mountain yellow-legged frog recovery projects, mostly via trout removal.  And the frogs have usually rebounded.

A society that can’t or won’t save its frogs can’t or won’t save its wild trout.  While an element of the angling public finds frog species silly, superfluous and, in this case, in the way, they’re like screws in a reel.  Lose a few and maybe you can still crank in line, lose a few more and the whole thing falls apart.  The stocking of naturally fishless lakes has endangered a snake, the Sierra garter, that depends on the frogs as prey.  Even the distribution of a bird--the gray-crowned rosy-finch--has been affected.  Like most finches it’s largely a seed eater, but in spring it needs protein to feed its hatchlings; and around Sierra Nevada lakes that protein used to come in the form of specialized mayflies, which stocked trout have virtually eliminated.  And the unraveling isn’t going to end there.  To borrow the words of the great naturalist, John Muir, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it hitched to the rest of the universe.”

While Fish and Game now takes a more scientific approach to stocking mountain lakes, striving not to superimpose hatchery fish on wild, naturalized populations, surveys are by no means complete.  And there are other wild and even native salmonids that have been and doubtless are being damaged by the competition, disease and genetic pollution that so frequently result from routine stocking.  Of particular concern are golden trout, southern California steelhead, south-central California steelhead, central California steelhead, summer-run steelhead, McCloud River redband trout, winter-run chinook salmon, spring-run chinook salmon, and coastal cutthroats.  Just because the Center for Biological Diversity and the Pacific Rivers Council were dead wrong about Paiute cutthroat recovery doesn’t mean they’re not dead on the mark about trout stocking.

What’s more, the settlement does not, as reported by Stienstra and others, permanently end trout stocking on listed waters.  After environmental review is complete, in January 2010, waters that can receive hatchery fish without major ecological damage, will continue to do so.  High lakes in the Sierra Nevada won’t be much affected for three reasons: 1. Many are in Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks where stocking was banned 18 years ago and which, not coincidentally, now provide some of the best trout fishing in the state; 2. Fish and Game has already monitored many native populations and, as a result, desisted from stocking anyway; and 3. the lakes that are still stocked get fingerlings and are lightly fished, so a year’s hiatus would not have a noticeable effect.

After Montana’s experience, you’d think anglers would be demanding environmental review of routine stocking, not just in California but in all wild-trout states and provinces.  Ten years ago, with the help of Maine brook trout biologist Forrest Bonney who wrote a letter carefully explaining the hideous damage hatchery trout do to wild trout populations, I got stocking stopped at a privately-owned pond I fish in southern Quebec.  Since then our wild squaretails have increased dramatically in size and number, and their copepod ectoparasites (those white “lice” you see on trout fins and gills) have plummeted.  Last fall we measured a 20-inch fish, the largest taken in at least 80 years.

It turns out that in California the angling community--at least the enlightened part--has indeed been demanding environmental review.  For instance, since the 1980s Trout Unlimited has been imploring Fish and Game to do an environmental impact report (EIR).  In April 1992 the state chapter even sued, settling in March 1993 when the department agreed to prepare not an EIR, but a less formal review.  No such document ever appeared.  Chuck Bonham, TU’s California director and senior attorney, offers this:  “California Fish and Game runs one of the world’s largest hatchery programs, and they have [illegally] exempted themselves from our environmental law.  TU historically has said to Fish and Game: ‘Look at your whole program, and think about it from an EIR perspective because there are places where you put non-native trout on top of native trout; and if you took that same money and invested it in water flow and habitat, you’d get healthy, self-sustaining populations.  Let’s take a deep breath.  There’s a lot of emotion and concern, but produce this document; and then let’s use that science to make the best management decisions.”

But could it be that Bonham is one of those “eco-weenie” frog huggers I keep reading about?  Perhaps, thought I, the group California Trout would be more sympathetic to the concerns of outraged bloggers.  So I phoned the outfit’s conservation director, Scott Feierabend, who was in the process of shoveling out from a blizzard of nastygrams demanding that his outfit defend the department, as if there was something parties outside litigation can do to change a court order.  He described coverage by the hook-and-bullet press as “a typical kneejerk reaction, written with minimal information” and the lawsuit as “totally legitimate.”  “Fish and Game,” he declared, “has known about this issue for a long, long time, and they’ve been sitting on their fannies.  These environmental statutes are there for a reason, and fish and wildlife advocates use them infrequently but when we think we need to.  For example, coho salmon were critically endangered here thanks to the folks who rape and pillage their habitat.  So we judiciously used the court system to bring greater protections.  It’s the pot calling the kettle black to chastise organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Pacific Rivers Council for using courts to move environmental agendas when we in the fish and wildlife conservation community do the same thing.”

To test the possibility that both TU and CalTrout have been taken over by eco-weenies, I checked out the website of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.  While I’ve worked a lot with TU and CalTrout, I knew little about the alliance.  But from its title I concluded that it might well share the notions of those who imagine that cluster bombing the biota with hatchery trout “protects” sportfishing.  Among other questions and answers I found these:

“Q: Do the alliance and other angler organizations file suit to require EIRs or to require changes to EIRs, or otherwise use EIRs to protect fish?
A: We do this all the time.  Take away the right of the Center for Biological Diversity to file suit to require an EIR, and you’ve taken away one of the major legal hammers the alliance and other fishing organizations have to file suit to protect fish and fisheries.
Q: Tom Stienstra says that we shouldn’t stop stocking fish because that won’t protect frogs.  Other things are killing the frogs anyway.
A: Be careful what you wish for.  The same kind of argument is used against fish all the time.  Since there are always ‘other’ things that kill off the fish, water managers tell us that their piece of the problem is not important, and they should get a free pass.
Q: Is an EIR a bad thing, or an unnecessary one?
A: “Understanding the environmental consequences of resource management is important.  Just because the people who filed a lawsuit to require an EIR don’t particularly care about fishermen, that doesn’t mean they haven’t raised a point that has validity.  Fish and Game has never said that producing an EIR was uncalled for.  If the alliance has a gripe with Fish and Game on this issue, it’s that Fish and Game didn’t decide to do an EIR before, and that Fish and Game has taken too long to get it done once it was compelled to.”




Stanford Law School professor Deborah Sivas, who directs the student-manned Environmental Law Clinic that represented the plaintiffs, filled me in on the alliance’s gripe:  “In 2005 we sent Fish and Game a long letter detailing our clients’ concerns and citing the studies on ecological impacts of trout stocking.  They didn’t respond.  Dead silence for a year.  We sent them another letter, included some additional studies and said we’re really serious about this, and if you guys don’t move forward, we may be looking at legal action.  Again, dead silence.  Under CEQA there’s a mandatory settlement meeting before litigation.  We came to that meeting with a list of sensitive species; and we said maybe in the next year you could do your EIR.  They basically told us to pound sand.”


So the plaintiffs pressed their suit.  Fish and Game bureaucrats and their lawyers were furious.  Their response, uttered verbatim in more than one case was: “We’ve been doing it this way for 100 years.”  But rank-and-file biologists privately expressed delight because they knew that the department had been doing it wrong for 100 years, that a science-based stocking policy is best for fish, wildlife, anglers and the department, and that only court action can turn a ship that displaces as much water as the California Department of Fish and Game.


In May 2007 the court ruled that trout stocking has “significant environmental impacts” on aquatic ecosystems and “in particular, on native species of fish, amphibians and insects, some of which are threatened or endangered.”  And, with the less-than-enthusiastic agreement of the plaintiffs, it gave Fish and Game all of 20 months to do an EIR that analyzed and mitigated damage.


Last summer, after more than a year, the plaintiffs asked Fish and Game how its EIR was coming along.  “They told us they hadn’t started it,” says Sivas.  “So the judge ordered interim protection.  We and the department went back and forth on the list of species we were worried about, and we agreed to take some things off.  We really tried not to be overinclusive.”


Interim protection, strictly the result of bureaucratic torpor on the part of Fish and Game, covers about 175 waters (there’s no exact number because, depending on who’s doing the interpretation, waters partly joined count as either one body or two) and extends to 16 species of fish (including nine salmonids), seven frog species, and one toad species.  Exempted are man-made reservoirs larger than 1,000 acres, smaller man-made reservoirs not connected to flowing water and outside the range of the federally threatened red-legged frog, stocking for state or federal mitigation, stocking funded by the Commercial Trollers Salmon Stamp, steelhead stocking in the Mad River Basin from the Mad River Hatchery, stocking for research, private stocking, and Fish and Game’s “Aquarium in the Classroom” program.  Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of opportunities to catch hatchery trout in 2009.  About 750 waters (or 80 percent of those regularly stocked) will still get fish.


I don’t condemn anyone who pursues hatchery trout.  I sometimes catch them myself, and not always by mistake.  When I’m in a trout-eating mood I actually seek them out because I don’t mind killing them.  But in California and everywhere else where trout are stocked anglers need to acquire what Aldo Leopold called an “ecological conscience” and what the outdoor writer he grew up reading, George Bird Grinnell, called “a refined taste in natural objects.”


About 30 years ago--after losing 750,000 trout a year at its San Joaquin hatchery (half the production) to great blue herons--the California Department of Fish and Game saw fit to install an automated Elmer-Fudd-like mannequin that rode up and down the raceways.  The herons perched on its shoulders and head until they were transported to a good concentration of fish, at which point they’d dive off and chow down.  Then, at enormous expense, the department swaddled the hatchery in chain link fence and netting, but one heron would lift up the weighted nets under the door while the others scooted in.  After staffers inserted heavier, stiffer door nets, the herons lined up behind the person who opened the door, pushed by him, then scolded him when he tried to shoo them out.  Eventually, as mitigation and also at enormous expense, the state created and stocked a “heron-feeding pond” outside the hatchery, slowly weaning the birds from their trout diet so they wouldn’t starve.


Hatchery trout sometimes induce that kind of behavior in humans, too.  But just as California rehabilitated its herons, it and other states can rehabilitate anglers.  The process, it appears, is already underway.


-from Fly Rod & Reel