An Entirely Synthetic Fish

When I was a kid in the 70s, the family went car-camping to visit relatives across the country.  All across the country, there were signs by the highway for trout fishing and rainbow trout. Why were these trout found all over the country? Where did they come from? Why was recreational trout-fishing ubiquitous, like golden arches and HoJos?

Anders Halvorson tells the story in An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World. Starting in the 1870s, an effort began to spread “superior fish” around the country and around the world.  Populations of brook trout on the East Coast were declining as industrial pollution destroyed habitat and warmed streams. Rainbow trout could tolerate higher temperatures and dirtier environments. Advocates of fish stocking argued that spreading hardier fish would solve the problem, since surely it was not feasible to cut the industrial pollution that inevitably accompanied progress.

The spread of fish around the US in the latter 1800s was part of a worldwide movement among colonizing societies to “acclimatize” species  from colonial territories to the old world, and from the old world to the new. Starlings were imported to the US by an eccentric New York drugs manufacturer who believed that US culture would be elevated by exposure to all of the species mentioned in Shakespeare; starlings were among his greatest successes. Halvorson connects the confident dissemination of species around the globe with broader ideologies:

As a philosophy, acclimatization fit well with American ideas of progress and manifest destiny. The white man would rightfully and inevitably replace the native people of the continent, civilization would supplant wilderness, and new plants and animals would ultimately oust their native counterparts. “Our only object can be to improve our fishing, and make our stock of sporting fish, if possible, the best in the world,” wrote one avid promoter of the idea.” Let the best fish, like the best man, win.”

Rainbow trout were considered elite among fish; they were seen as a noble adversary for sport fishing since they were easily attracted to fishing lures and tended to struggle aggressively on the fishing line.  The spread of rainbow trout across the US helped support the rapid growth of fishing as a sport. Fin de siecle promoters were concerned about the decline of white Anglo-Saxon manhood as the upper classes enaged in white collar work while immigrants and African-Americans took over physical labor. Hiking, camping, fishing and other outdoor sports would bolster white masculinity.

Starting in the late 1900s parks started to make money by charging for fishing permits; the trend escalated in the mid-20th century with the federalization of fishing licence fees. The fees from recreational fishing fed a massive rainbow trout hachery and stocking enterprise. After World War II, an enterprising former military pilot experimented and found that fish would survive being dropped from airplanes, and demobilized pilots made their living “planting” fish in lakes and rivers on a grand scale around the country. Fish stocking was extremely popular; fishing hobbyists would beg game services to stock their favorite fishing spot.  By 2004, the US government disseminated over 40 million pounds of fish per year, over half of which consisted of rainbow trout.

But the system started to slowly unravel starting in 1962, when fishing management agencies botched an effort to poison all of the fish in the Green River watershed, covering most of southeastern Wyoming and a chunk of Northwestern Utah. The practice of poisoning existing “inferior” species and replacing them with trout had become routine in the 1950s. The agencies had planned to introduce an antidote to stop the poisoning north of Dinosaur National Monument, a newly minted national park that had recently been saved from development by the rising Sierra Club. But the antidote failed; the fish in the national park were killed, the story made the news, and the seemingly sensible policy of replacing species wholesale never seemed quite so benign again.

Gradually, research into river ecosystems cast increasing doubt on the benefits of stocking lakes and rivers with rainbow trout. In the 1960s, government scientists inventoried fish and realized that restocking waters where trout were already acclimatized actually had a negative return. When new fish were stocked, the newcomers, raised in the crowded hatcheries, aggressively competed with existing fish but didn’t survive long in the wild; the net result was fewer fish, not more fish. Some fisheries started cutting back on fishing in areas where “wild” fish were already doing fine.

In the 1990s, research into the ecosystems of Sierra Lakes, which had no fish until the stocking program, revealed that the introduced fish devastated the populations of frogs, birds and bats. When fish were removed, the other species bounced back.  In many districts today, the fish and wildlife agencies are attempting to gradually reversing the stocking of rainbow trout, and seeking to  restore the balance of earlier species. The restoration can be difficult since Rainbow Trout have interbred with native species. It is difficult to determine which populations have enough of the native species to be worth special efforts to preserve.

“An Entirely Synthetic Fish” joins the short list of my favorite books of environmental history, for the way that reveals strange and changing trends in American society, while unravelling the history of seemingly ordinary fishing spots around the country. Yet the story Halvorson tells reveals that seemingly rational efforts to understand and deal with the natural world were intertwined with human ideologies about ethnicity, gender, and the relation between people and the rest of the natural world. Even contemporary focus on restoring native habitats reflects human-centerered attitude toward nature; in this case the pre-stocking native ecosystem is seen as better, although the continent has seen numerous turnovers of species resulting from introductions and extinctions not caused by people. Activities conducted under the auspices of science, government authority, and popular demand are vulnerable to the follies of their time, which is cause for humility and skepticism about conventional wisdom.

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