Great Splake Editorial

An eloquent and powerful statement on splake by my friend, former director of Maine Rivers Naomi Schalit and now New England’s top editorial writer. Sunday, July 2, 2006 Maine doesn't need splake Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc. You'd think we'd have figured this out by now. Mess with Mother Nature and you enter the world of unintended and dangerous consequences. Such is the case with the lovely purple loosestrife -- a plant once sold in nurseries for home gardeners and landscapers. It's a non-native species in this region that has escaped backyard gardens and infiltrated vast areas of New England, displacing native plants and altering the ecology of wetlands that once supported a diversity of native flora and fauna. Loosestrife is pretty stuff, profoundly destructive, and we don't know how the heck to get rid of it. Now, consider the splake. A hatchery cross between the brook trout and the lake trout -- in other words, not a fish that God put on this earth, but rather one devised by biologists -- the splake is described by its champions at Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which breeds and stocks the beast, as a dandy solution to the problem of waters that no longer support self-sustaining trout populations. It grows fast, isn't finicky about water quality and has a much higher survival rate than hatchery-raised trout. In other words, if fishermen don't have any more fish to fish because we've screwed up the habitat in which those fish normally live, and we're pretty lousy at raising their replacements in hatcheries, then we'll invent something that will be happy there. Ah, man is powerful! There's only one problem: We're not that powerful. And once you put a fish in the water, they're more than likely to swim. This year, anglers who love fishing the cold, clear waters of some of Maine's best wild and native trout streams -- the Magalloway and Rapid rivers near Rangeley, the Kennebec in Bingham, the Penobscot's West Branch -- caught splake instead. And splake hadn't been stocked in those rivers. Exhibit A in how we've already lost control of the splake population. Then there's the matter of splake reproduction. Introducing a non-native fish into highly-prized waters populated by native species is a tremendous risk. Biologists who stock splake claim they're sterile -- but what if they're wrong? They've been wrong before. And if they are, we stand to lose a major aspect of what's so special about Maine's recreational fishing industry, as well as -- and perhaps more importantly -- the remaining ecological integrity of a system that has withstood substantial compromise up till now. And if you believe we'll never see a baby splake swimming alongside a Momma and Poppa splake, well then, we've got a bridge to sell you. The fundamental problem presented by splake is philosophical, really. For years, the management agenda of the folks at Maine's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has been driven by the people who buy fishing and hunting licenses (and whose fees fund the department). They want to catch fish. So we've managed our inland waters for anglers, not on an ecological basis. That's wrongheaded and has impoverished our natural resources. And in the end, we would ask, what does an angler really get from catching a fish that has been bred just for humans to catch? Somehow it doesn't seem quite so sporting to us, whereas the thrill of catching a truly wild fish, a native trout -- well that's a thrill worth fighting for.