Freak Trout

Freak Trout

  • By: Ted Williams
world record trout.jpg

As I write, I am gazing at a photo of the world-record rainbow trout and thinking about Chesty Morgan. Chesty was a porn queen with a freakish bust measurement that, according to Guinness Movie Facts & Feats, is the largest on record for any film star. Somehow I missed her film, Deadly Weapons, in which she kills men with her breasts.

I appreciate breasts as much as the next guy, but only up to a certain size—before they impede a woman’s balance, for instance. For me, at least, there’s a point of rapidly diminishing returns when more ceases to be better. That’s why Chesty is not my ideal of feminine beauty.

For this same reason, the world-record rainbow trout is not my ideal of piscatorial beauty. It’s an obese, 48-pound triploid—one of half a million escapees from an aquaculture operation on Lake Diefenbaker, and taken September 5, 2009, by Sean Konrad of nearby Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Triploids are created by shocking fertilized eggs with heat, pressure or chemicals (doubtless in bell towers with the assistance of cackling hunchbacks). The third chromosome makes females sterile and males nearly so. Energy that would normally go to gonads is diverted to growth. So triploids frequently attain immense and unnatural size, acquire pinheads, diminutive tails and Jaba the Hutt physiques.

Konrad’s fish beat out the previous world record—an even more grotesque-looking triploid of 43.6 pounds, caught June 5, 2007, in the same lake by twin brother Adam, also of Saskatoon. You have to love the unpretentiousness of these young anglers. Adam accurately described his fish to the press as “ugly and fat;” Sean called his “a freak.” If Dr. Seuss’ Marco can angle in McElligot’s Pool for “a fish with a head at both ends,” who can blame these guys for seeking similar monstrosities in their home water?

However offensive triploidy may be to wild-fish advocates, there are benefits beyond fatty-meat production. For example, as a result of a 2006 lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Pacific Rivers Council, the California Department of Fish and Game has committed to stocking triploid rainbow trout. Plaintiffs sought to control ill-planned, wasteful and ecologically disastrous aerial bombardment of high-country lakes with hatchery trout, something wild-trout advocates had been complaining about for decades. Stocking triploids in waters that traditionally got fertile diploids will keep license dollars flowing while preventing most introgression in downstream and upstream fish, particularly imperiled Lahontan cutthroats and Kern River rainbows.

Similarly, Alaska has taken to stocking triploid rainbows in waters near settled areas that are incapable of producing trout, the better to shield its world-famous wild rainbows from bucket biologists. And in 2008 the United Kingdom’s Environmental Agency announced that, to preserve the genetic integrity of its wild brown trout, all hatchery trout stocked in rivers and lakes will have to be triploids by 2015.

Still, laboratory brainstorms like triploidy always have more presumed applications than real ones. In 2002, before the physiological debits of triploidy were well understood, The New York Times quoted Dr. Fred Whoriskey of the Atlantic Salmon Federation as follows: “This could be a win-win scenario in that taking the genetic, reproductive component in farm fish out of the picture in a cost-effective way would really protect wild fish, while having just a negligible effect on the salmon farming industry.”

Wild salmon advocates pressured the aquaculture industry to switch to triploids; but it refused, reasoning that adding a third chromosome to the two that nature intended might lead to ill health. To the industry that just seemed like common sense. And it was.

Since then, Dr. Whoriskey and other researchers have learned that triploidy leads to skeletal deformity, arrested gill development, diminished immunity and heavy predation. Recovery of triploid Atlantic salmon after ocean migration was between 12 and 24 percent of that for their diploid siblings. A study by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game found that 85 percent of stocked triploid rainbow trout “were presumed dead at 30 days poststocking.” (The lesson derived by the department: “Managers wishing to maximize return-to-creel rates of sterile catchables in lotic systems might do so by limiting stocking events to within 3 weeks of expected needs and limiting the stocking locations to within 1 km of areas frequented by anglers.”)

In February 2010, Dr. Whoriskey told me this: “It turns out that triploidy has a number of other nefarious effects beyond making fish ugly. One is suppressing the immune system, so triploid animals become much more susceptible to infection with a variety of diseases. From a fish farmer’s perspective you either lose fish or depend on much higher medication use, which gets you into environmental trouble as well as cost trouble. And from a wild-salmon perspective it means that the triploid fish become incubation factories for various disease organisms that will be shed into the water and potentially move into wild stocks.”

Because male triploids are sometimes marginally fertile, they can pair with diploid females and pollute native genes. But a bigger danger is that they will take the wild, diploid females out of the breeding pool. Releasing sterilized males is actually a tool for controlling such invasive pests as sea lampreys in the Great Lakes. Stocking only female triploids—as Idaho does in the upper Blackfoot Reservoir to protect the drainage’s Yellowstone cutthroats—can prevent these dangers. But most states don’t bother to do this.

Not only are some male triploids fertile; a few diploids sometimes turn up in batches of certified triploids. When Dr. Donald Tillitt and his colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Environmental Research Center in Columbia, Missouri, checked “triploid” black carp they found an error rate of about .25 percent. That doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that only one diploid female fertilized by a diploid or a triploid male can infest the nation. And, in fact, that appears to have happened.

Alien fish imported and reared by aquaculturists always escape and, where conditions allow, naturalize. It is not a question of if, but when.

The industry has given us naturalized grass carp, naturalized bighead carp and naturalized silver carp—the Asian species currently knocking people out of boats and threatening the Great Lakes. Black carp are an even greater ecological danger than silver carp. They are the biggest of the Asian carps, reaching at least 6 ½ feet in length, and they are molluscivores. The U.S. has more species and subspecies of freshwater mollusks than any nation—297 mussels and 600 snails— many of which are threatened or endangered.

Aquaculturists insisted on importing black carp because they eat the snail vectors of two species of trematodes that parasitize channel catfish, hybrid striped bass and baitfish. The industry assured us that, with this miracle elixir called triploidy, nothing could possibly go wrong. In 1994 about 30 black carp escaped into Missouri’s Osage River, part of the Mississippi River system. But no worries; they were said to be triploids (and therefore couldn’t reproduce).

Then, in February 2000, the 28-state organization for cooperative fish management called the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Association (MICRA) petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the black carp as “injurious” under the Lacey Act, a designation that would proscribe future importation from Asia and impede (though not stop) interstate transport.

This outraged the powerful aquaculture industry, which loudly repeated its mantra that triploids couldn’t possibly be injurious. It prevailed on Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), who had worked for Bill Clinton when he was Arkansas governor, to haul Fish and Wildlife Service Director Jamie Clark into her office and sit her down in front of industry pooh-bahs. The day after the meeting, Clark ordered the removal of MICRA’s director, Jerry Rasmussen, the respected fisheries biologist who had received 12 awards for his work, including the American Fisheries Society’s coveted President’s Conservation Award, rarely given to federal employees.

Three years later, a commercial fisherman in Illinois captured a black carp from the Mississippi River floodplain. It was too young to have come from the 1994 escape (a little worrisome). But it, too, was proclaimed a triploid. Then, in 2004, a diploid black carp turned up in a Mississippi tributary in Louisiana. In order to make triploids you need diploids, and at least one had escaped.

Finally, in October 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service locked the long-empty barn, doing what MICRA had asked it to do seven years earlier and what it had fired Rasmussen for recommending. Now that black carp are officially “injurious” they are gorging on mussels and snails in the Mississippi system.

In March 2010, Dr. Leo Nico of the U.S. Geological Survey, who literally wrote the book on black carp—Black Carp, Biological Synopsis and Risk, Assessment of an Introduced Fish, American Fisheries Society, 2005—informed me that, to date, he knows of about 100 black carp taken from the wild.

“Unguided missiles,” he calls them. “Part of the problem,” he said, “is that even if they’re present in fair numbers, they probably go undetected. They don’t jump like silver carp; they hang around the bottom of big rivers. They’re only getting picked up by commercial fishermen using big hoop nets or gill nets in deep water. Few of these fishermen can distinguish them from grass carp and even fewer report them.”

Anglers who see aesthetic and social issues with triploidy are referred to as “elitists” by the rubber-fish axis, but these issues have biological implications. I began my investigation into this aspect with a phone call to the International Game Fish Association.

Why, I inquired of its conservation director, Jason Schratwieser, does the IGFA recognize triploids as records? “We focus on the species level,” he replied. “We have never distinguished between diploids and triploids. Triploids do occur naturally in the environment. Brown trout aren’t even native to the Americas, but there are probably more records coming from North and South America than from Eurasia. I think that putting something in a different environment far exceeds what people’s ideas are concerning triploid fish. And if we were going to do this, we’d have to take a genetic sample from any fish that came in. It’s not practical.”

I don’t buy a word of it. In the wild maybe one in 100 million fish eggs will mutate into a triploid; and when that happens chances that the compromised fish will survive to adulthood, much less record size, are virtually nil. The danger of a naturally produced triploid finding its way into IGFA record books is about equal to the threat of those books spontaneously combusting. And provided the “ideas concerning triploids” spring from sober, healthy minds, counting naturalized fish like brown trout as records isn’t a hundredth as offensive as counting artificially concocted, genetic freaks. The IGFA should at least consider a fish’s origin.

If it’s a rainbow from, say, Alaska’s Copper River, maybe genetic sampling can be skipped; if it’s a pot-bellied pinhead from a reservoir full of net-cages, IGFA needs to crank up the “Coulter counter,” that eminently practical instrument for inventorying cell particles.

IGFA’s recognition of triploids strikes me as no less obscene than the Safari Club International’s recognition of record “wild boars” fed commercial hog chow and raised and hunted in enclosures—a thought I shared with fly-fisherman and eminent ichthyologist Dr. Robert Behnke.

“Artificially induced sterile fish should be a separate category for record keeping,” Dr. Behnke opined. “They are unnatural and should not be judged by the same standards as wild, diploid fish. I consider the production of chromosomal manipulated fish to be more comparable to raising livestock than to angling.”

The enthusiasm for triploidy in places it’s not needed alarms people like Charles Gauvin, past president of Trout Unlimited, who perceives triploids as “Frankenstein fish” every bit as odious as splake and tiger trout.

“This craze,” he told me, “says it all about what’s wrong with fish management because it takes to the extreme the ability to create products that are there for recreational consumption only and that take management completely away from considerations of habitat integrity and sustainability.”

And Dr. John Epifanio of the Illinois Natural History Survey weighs in with this: “These programs can become runaway trains where everyone wants to get their hands on the biggest fish that’s a genetically modified critter.”

I sifted through all the online hook-and-bullet literature and was unable to unearth a single publication or Web site that questions the aesthetic or any other aspect of triploidy. In fact, most promote triploids anywhere and everywhere.

“Want to catch some trout for the table?” gushes Washington Game and Fish magazine about “jumbo triploids” flung around the state like confetti. And Sportfishingreport.com effuses as follows:

“Not only are trout big, but the big Mt. Lassen triploid trout have developed a reputation among regular anglers for their fighting ability.”

Mt. Lassen is a triploid factory in Red Bluff, California. Owner Phil Mackey believes the state record rainbow, a 28-pound, 5-ounce triploid, was reared to near final weight at his facility. But Mackey wouldn’t answer most of my questions.

“We worked with the Los Angeles Times on a really in-depth article,” he explained. “The reporter did a remarkable job”—meaning he didn’t question any aspect of triploidy—“and then his editor went and entitled the article Freakoid Fish?”

Meaning the editor got it right. Mackey went on to explain that the national demand for triploids far exceeds supply.

So, considering that headline, there was no reason for him to talk to reporters like me and risk more negative publicity. Probably a good point. I asked him if there were other private triploid hatcheries like his, and he rattled off a bunch of names. One supplies the California Department of Fish and Game.

“I can tell you this,” he said. “We weighed one of our fish the other day at 35 pounds. We have several fish much larger than the current state record right now.”

I began to understand why the huge demand for triploids exceeds the huge supply when I logged onto the Web site of the pay-to-fish concessionaires who run Corona Lake in Anaheim and nearby Santa Ana River Lakes and to whom Mackey hawks his fish. You get multi-colored print promo, a video of grotesque, pout-tailed, semi-finless freakoids sliding out of a hatchery truck, and an audio in which a voice, straight out of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, barks about such triploid concoctions as the “Lightning Trout,” the “Thunder Trout,” and the “Donaldson Strain Pink-Meat Steelhead”.

The ad continues, “Now remember Dad pays $60; he gets a 15-fish limit, and mom and three kids 12 and under get in free. Mom and the kids can fish free and help Dad get his 15-fish limit…. The largest trout to date is 21 pounds. But there are many, many trout out there that are bigger than 21 pounds, including the two 30-pound rainbows we stocked last week. That will break the California state record for rainbow trout… No fishing license is required.”

“The social impacts of triploidy scare the heck out of me,” declares Tom Weseloh, California Trout’s Northcoast program manager. “I worry about the public buying into it to the point where it doesn’t care about wild fish. And I worry about the privatization of fisheries where people can go catch 15-pound trout in a pond. Why aren’t we teaching people to be happy with a native trout that is only supposed to be 15 inches instead of 15 pounds? I don’t know how we get that message out. Fish and Game seems only to care about size. Part of it may be a marketing issue, but I don’t think everyone in the world wants to catch huge, mutant slugs.”

Increasingly, state game and fish agencies are using triploidy not only to protect wild fish; but as an excuse to stock on top of them, thereby threatening them with disease, parasites, competition and increased angling pressure. As Jessica Sall of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife told me, “We had gotten away from stream stocking for a while, but triploids may offer us a new way to do that.”

That trend doesn’t sit well with Bill Bakke of the Portland, Oregon, based Native Fish Society. “All I’ve been able to find in terms of technical literature is how to make triploids,” he remarks. “There’s nothing about their ecological impacts. Yet the state agencies are moving forward without any real knowledge. Oregon is beginning to release triploids into wild-trout streams, thinking it can create more license sales but ignoring possible damage to native fish, not just trout. That causes me great concern because the state agencies are really out there hammering, trying to get more fish killed and more licenses sold. If you add triploids to anadromous streams, you not only have ecological impacts but the fishing impacts on juvenile salmon and steelhead. Bait fishermen using barbed hooks sort through their catches in order to retain a triploid.”

Introgression with wild cutthroats has been “remedied” by triploidy, boasts Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which last year stocked 2,488,000 fingerling triploids and 2,135,000 “catchable” triploids. Before the advent of this cure-all, it explains, it had “simply quit stocking rainbows at locations with self-sustaining cutthroat populations.... thanks to some dedicated fish researchers Idaho anglers can have their cake and eat it too.”

On Henry's Lake, an important sanctuary for Yellowstone cutthroats, Idaho has traditionally stocked rainbow-cutthroat hybrids because, as one local angler informed the department, “cutthroats fight like ussies.” In 1976, about the time managers across the nation started worrying about genetic integrity of native fish, Fish and Game announced it would stop polluting Henrys Lake with manmade mongrels. Anglers threw a hissy fit and got the legislature to hold hostage the department’s budget. So today the stocking of Henrys Lake continues but with triploid cutt-bows.

Finally, the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture—a partnership of NGOs and state and federal resource agencies—touts triploidy as “a strategy for conserving native stocks while meeting the public demand for recreational angling opportunities,” correctly noting that “brook trout are at risk from genetic interaction, as hatchery-reared trout need only survive to the first fall after stocking (about four months) to spawn with wild stocks.”

But why are the state partners dumping any hatchery trout on top of wild fish? Instead of increasing pressure on wild trout by tossing genetic mutants to gull-like license buyers the partners (and all state game and fish agencies) should be instilling what 19th and early 20th century outdoor writer George Bird Grinnell called “a refined taste in natural objects.”

Their “information and education” staffers need to start earning their keep by teaching the angling public to appreciate fish of natural size produced by nature in natural habitats instead of lusting after freakoid trout as grotesque and out of place as Chesty Morgan’s breasts.

Conservation editor of this magazine for several decades, Ted Williams’ latest book is Something’s Fishy.