Why Eating Trout Won't Save Trout

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Why Eating Trout Won’t Save Trout

Bob Mallard

There have been several articles and blog posts recently defending and even promoting the consumption of trout, and one defending why they were promoting such after the fact.  What was interesting about these pieces was the source: The fly fishing media and trout advocacy world, the last places many expect to be encouraging the harvest of trout. 

As you would expect these pro-consumption pieces resulted in a broad range of feedback ranging from shock to disappointment to anger to agreement, and divided the fly fishing ranks in a way I have not seen in years.  After spending decades promoting catch-and-release, appearing to reverse course is bound to be met with some level of challenge, and possibly a whole lot.  

While some of the pieces promoting eating trout were done in defense of what the author saw as a “rite of passage,” others were positioned as a way to conserve trout, and while not always clear, native trout.  Whether eating trout is a necessary rite of passage is a matter of opinion and debatable.  Conversely, eating trout as a conservation tool is a matter of science.

The pieces done under the guise of “conservation” were somewhat confusing.  The underlying message was not clear, and what trout should and should not be harvested and why was equally unclear.  The emphasis was on “eating trout” when it should have been “protecting trout,” and native ones only.  Eating trout should have been an afterthought. 

Trout are just one of many nonnative fish imperiling our native trout so why stop there?  Why not encourage eating nonnative bass, pike, muskies, perch and carp? 

Trout are just one of many nonnative fish imperiling our native trout so why stop there?  Why not encourage eating nonnative bass, pike, muskies, perch and carp?  Nonnative bass are imperiling such important native trout waters as the Rapid River in Maine, the nation’s finest wild native brook trout river.  And rather than harvesting stocked trout, might we be better served by working to try to get stocking over wild trout stopped?   

From a pure conservation standpoint removing stocked and nonnative trout is good for wild native trout where they overlap – there is no negative.  I personally support these efforts when they are well thought out, well explained, and part of a viable plan to control, but rarely remove, invasive fish to benefit native species – and not just trout or even fish, but all native species. 

When we talk about removing stocked and nonnative fish to benefit native fish the emphasis should be exactly that – removal.  How the fish are removed and what happens to them afterwards is irrelevant, and can include multiple harvest methods and disposal options.  Leading with eating trout is too narrowly focused, unlikely to do any real good, and potentially dangerous.    

From a pure numbers standpoint, and by default biological impact, trying to get anglers to consume nonnative and stocked trout as a means of protecting native trout probably has the lowest return of all the options available to us. 

From a pure numbers standpoint, and by default biological impact, trying to get anglers to consume nonnative and stocked trout as a means of protecting native trout probably has the lowest return of all the options available to us.  And while it can’t hurt, it won’t help to any real degree unless far more anglers are willing and able to do it than I believe is the case.

One flaw with the “conservation by consumption” concept is that many of us don’t eat trout – myself included.  Another is that anglers are often not in a position to cook and eat trout regardless of whether they would like to.  Consider the angler who encounters a nonnative rainbow trout in Slough Creek in Yellowstone National Park while staying at Roosevelt Lodge, they have no way to cook their catch.  In fact, most travelling anglers don’t.

While anyone who is comfortable doing so can kill and dispose of stocked and nonnative trout, not everyone can cook and eat them.  In fact, there are far more times when disposal is the best, and even only, option available than there are times when eating trout is a viable option.  This is why emphasizing removal not consumption is a far more effective strategy. 

I’d also argue that regardless of what some say, discarding stocked and nonnative fish is not “wasteful” as nothing in nature goes to waste. 

Very few states have “wanton waste” laws that apply to fish, therefore the disposal of such is not illegal.  I’d also argue that regardless of what some say, discarding stocked and nonnative fish is not “wasteful” as nothing in nature goes to waste.  Trout disposed of in the woods or water will be eaten by birds, mammals, crustaceans, insects, and other forms of wildlife.  They add nutrients to the soil and water as well.

The best place to start is to make sure people understand that stocked and nonnative fish compete with native fish for food and space.  They can also disrupt spawning and interbreed with native fish resulting in reduced genetic diversity or hybridization.  Stocked and nonnative fish can prey on native fish as well.  And stocked fish can introduce disease and parasites.

For this message to be effective we need to be consistent.  Nonnative fish can’t be good one day and bad the next, or OK in one place but not OK in another.  The same holds true for stocked fish, we can’t be involved in stocking one day and criticize stocked fish the next day.  We can’t send mixed messages and expect the masses to listen to us.

As for how to remove stocked and nonnative fish, the best answer is “however we can.”  Angling is just one option, and in all honesty, probably the least efficient one. 

As for how to remove stocked and nonnative fish, the best answer is “however we can.”  Angling is just one option, and in all honesty, probably the least efficient one.  This is especially true when tied to consumption.  But anglers can and should help, and as we have seen with native fish we can be a pretty effective predator when we want to be.  Focus on removing not eating fish, and let those who want to and can eat them make their own decision.

And to be clear, while removing stocked and nonnative fish is beneficial to native fish, removing native fish is not.  Removing native fish reduces overall biomass, eliminates breeding stock, etc.  While there are varying degrees of “bad” in regard to the consumption of native fish, there is no degree of good as trying to manipulate natural fish populations for angling rarely works as planned.

In closing, the long-standing catch and release message was working.  The growing acceptance of low-impact angling brought our native fish resources back from the brink and improved many recreational fisheries.  We trout anglers led the low-impact angling charge and others followed suit.  Saltwater and bass anglers bought in as did others.  Were we wrong?  I don’t believe so.

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