Earlier this spring, I drove to a small beaver pond near my home in Colorado, snapped together my fishing rod, and cast a silver lure into the pond’s crystalline waters. Within twenty minutes, I’d caught dinner: a pair of glittering rainbow trout, olive backs spattered with a constellation of black spots. The fish were gorgeous, and, roasted with oil and garlic, would prove delicious. But, having just read Douglas M. Thompson‘s The Quest for the Golden Trout: Environmental Loss and America’s Iconic Fish (University Press of New England, 2013), my enjoyment was just a tad diminished by one piece of knowledge: the fish had been stocked.
Every year, government fisheries agencies around the country pour tens of millions of hatchery-raised trout into America’s rivers and lakes. These stocked fish generate vast revenues in the form of fishing licenses and gear sales, and they provide innumerable anglers pleasure and the occasional meal. But, as Thompson’s book reveals, the widespread dissemination of hatchery fish is doing profound ecological harm. Stocked fish, like rainbow trout, are often non-native species that disrupt ecosystems and crowd out local fish. What’s more, within the artificial, concrete-lined context of the hatchery, fish often acquire evolutionary traits (for example, large size at the expense of swimming ability) that are maladaptive once they’re released into the wild. When unfit hatchery trout mix their genes with wild populations, the result can be ecological chaos — like the titular “golden trout,” a bright orange, hatchery-bred novelty.
Hatcheries, moreover, are merely the tip of the iceberg. In the name of improving conditions for (generally wealthy) anglers, humans have been altering rivers for more than a century. We’ve killed countless herons, cormorants, and other native predators; we’ve filled our waters with all manner of artificial structures to “improve habitat” (in the process permanently changing the contours and the function of our rivers); and our attempts to “restore” rivers to their former conditions are often misguided and ineffective. Part environmental history, part passionate cry for a saner system of river management, Thompson’s book will make any angler (myself included) reconsider their place within aquatic ecosystems.
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