The Danger of Splake

Splake -- a Frankenstein fish concocted in hatcheries by crossing brook trout with lake trout -- are increasingly popular around the nation. So predacious are they that in the West they’re used to control overpopulated brook trout. Maine wild-trout activist Bob Mallard aptly describes splake as “the hair in a $100 meal.” To me splake and all such Frankenstein fish are an insult to the natural world and to the art of angling and to us as stewards of the wild. In my humble opinion splake and similar man-made mongrels are accepted and celebrated because we lack what outdoor writer George Bird Grinnell on the pages of the 19th century sporting journal Forest and Stream called a “refined taste in natural objects.” But splake are not just esthetically offensive; they are dangerous. Their creators pronounced them sterile and, therefore, not a genetic threat to wild char such as lake trout and brook trout. But, like the monsters of Jurassic Park, splake have found a way to replicate. Native trout can frequently survive alien predation. Witness, for example, the healthy brook trout in Maine’s storied Pierce Pond that, for more than a century, have been living with chain pickerel. What they can’t abide -- and what ALWAYS wipes them out -- is genetic swamping. In Maine, where splake are being superimposed on wild brook trout, the louder splake proponents -- most notably one John Whalen, a former game warden who should know better -- are spreading untruths about this Frankenstein fish. Their mantra: Splake have NEVER been seen to reproduce in the wild; they have NEVER hybridized with native salmonids. These folks are not biologists, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are only misinformed. At any rate, splake are not sterile. There is abundant, irrefutable evidence of splake hybridizing with other chars, including brook trout. For example, in a study funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Dr. Wendy Stott, a geneticist at Ann Arbor office of the University of Michigan, sampled 15 splake from Lake Superior. The purpose of the study was to demonstrate to the Lake Superior Technical Committee that state stocking of splake in Lake Superior is foolhardy when the governments of the United States and Canada are working desperately to restore two native chars. Two of the 15 splake sampled turned out to be splake X lake trout hybrids; two were splake X brook trout hybrids; and one was the result of splake reproducing with a splake. This is shocking percentage of the study sample -- 33 percent. Splake are regularly seen on lake-trout spawning beds, apparently infecting them with their twisted genes. For years biologists have been observing splake hybridization with brook or lake trout in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan. There are long-standing populations of reproducing splake in Ontario. Maine -- the last major refuge of wild, native brook trout in the United States -- is playing with fire. Someone needs to help Bob Mallard pick up the fish managers by the lapels and shout into their faces. - 30 -