Protecting Native Salmonids

Protecting Native Salmonids

We just want to keep what we have...

  • By: James Prosek
Not long ago I attended a fundraising dinner in New York City hosted by the Yellowstone Park Foundation. The Park's head fisheries biologist had just finished a 40-minute presentation on the damaging effects of introduced lake trout and whirling disease on the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. The charts showed a precipitous decline of Yellowstone cutthroats in Yellowstone Lake, and he made a powerful request for private funds to help eradicate the culprits. Afterward, an angler in the audience raised his hand to speak."I've had the good fortune to fish some of the better spring creeks in Montana," he began, "and I've found that the best flyrod fish by far is the brown trout. Why aren't you spending all this money instead on introducing brown trout to the park? They're resistant to whirling disease and they're a better flyrod fish than the cutthroat." The fisheries biologist replied, "We just want to keep what we have." In my opinion, the man's question was an example of bad fly-fishing philosophy. We shouldn't try to shape the environment to suit our recreational pursuits. If you want to have sport on an artificial landscape, play golf. The root of the problem stems from fly-fishing's English heritage, in which the concept of manicuring the environment for sport reached its peak. Say your fly gets caught in a particular tree every time you go to cast. Well in England they'd send the riverkeeper to cut down the tree. Or, if there weren't enough fish, they'd simply start stocking them. The man's question about introducing brown trout-a fish that's not even native to North America-may have been ignorant, but it wasn't dumb. What he was essentially asking was: What value does a native fish really have? Indeed, who really misses the small galaxid fishes that inhabited many New Zealand rivers and were displaced by introduced brown trout? For most people, they were too small to notice (or to care about), but their loss weighs heavily on those of us who see every organism as an irreplaceable link in the chain of life. However, that does not mean I haven't enjoyed catching introduced trout. For instance, the very first trout I ever caught was a brown in a river once inhabited by native brook trout. Furthermore, I've enjoyed catching giant brown trout in Argentina (all trout in the Southern Hemisphere are introduced) and hard-fighting rainbow trout on the Delaware River in New York State (also introduced). But I enjoyed much more the hike to the Kern Plateau in California to catch golden trout, which live at the highest elevation of any trout native to North America. There, magically, everything was in its place. The last trip I went on in search of native trout was to Sicily. The challenge in Sicily was not so much finding trout as finding water. The small amount of fresh water left in Sicily is used to irrigate the citrus trees and vineyards, and in summer the streams run almost completely dry. The Sicilian trout evolved in a dry, scorched climate and they are holding on, but if we take every last drop of water, they will perish. But why preserve native fish? Because a loss of biodiversity is a loss to the human imagination. Instead of a quick fix such as introducing a European trout that is resistant to a disease also introduced from Europe, why not just try to keep what we have? To me there's something beautiful about catching a trout in the stream where it evolved. We need to conserve the places we haven't ruined and fight to preserve those native trout on the brink of extirpation. But who is going to protect them? World Trout is pledged to do just that. The idea for this organization developed following a day I spent fishing with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard for native cutthroats in Yellowstone Park. Yvon and I saw a need for an organization concerned with preserving native trout around the world. Each year World Trout will choose three species to champion, and will raise money to give to local conservation groups to use in protecting their native trout. The first three trout we selected are the greenback cutthroat of Colorado, the Atlantic salmon of Maine and the sea-run huchen of northern Japan. World Trout will raise money through contributions and by selling t-shirts featuring paintings of the fish. The shirts are available through Patagonia. Please join in any way you can by contributing money or buying a t-shirt. The fly angler is one of the best allies to protect and conserve native trout and clean water. In the future I hope to have a success story to tell. To find out more about the World Trout campaign, visit www.patagonia.com or e-mail Bill Klyn at [email protected].