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Wild Fish and Weird Californians

Here’s a shocker, the California Department of Fish and Game has admitted that dumping millions of hatchery fish on top of native populations is detrimental to the native species. All it took was a lawsuit. Back in 2007, a California court ordered DFG to prepare an EIS on the impacts of its hatchery program. The EIR/EIS was released last week.

California has been running a fish planting program for over 100 years. They run 24 trout and salmon hatcheries, but it never occurred to them to try to find out if the program was having any effect on native species. Montana found out nearly fifty years ago that hatchery fish provide a poor substitute for wild fish and we stopped dumping genetically inferior hatchery fish on top of our native trout populations and focused on preserving and enhancing our wild fish. The results have been that Montana became an international trout fishing destination. California has relied almost exclusively on their put-and-take fishery. Hatchery fish have been shown to be partly to blame for declining runs of west coast salmon and steelhead by reducing the reproductive fitness of successive generations of anadromous fish.

California DFG fought tooth and nail against studying the effects of their hatchery program. They claimed that they were exempt from California’s Environmental Quality Act because the hatchery program was older than the Act. The court was having none of it. The judge wrote:

In this case, there is little doubt that there is substantial evidence in the record that supports at least a “fair argument” that respondent’s fish stocking program has significant environmental impacts on the aquatic ecosystems into which hatchery fish are introduced, and, in particular, on native species of fish, amphibians and insects, some of which are threatened or endangered.

And, that since DFG had never performed an environmental assessment of the program, they would be required to “comply with CEQA in connection with its fish stocking program.” So, they did…well, kind of, comply. The alternative preferred by DFG in the recently released EIR was to look for native species before they stock, and then go ahead and stock hatchery fish anyway. In 2006, California stocked over 50 million trout even though studies have found that over 80% of waters stocked in California could maintain themselves by natural reproduction. The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the petitioners in the 2007 lawsuit, disagreed with the DFG alternative and  issued a press release today that says, in part:

California Department of Fish and Game has utterly failed to mitigate the devastating impacts of stocking hatchery fish on our native species, being driven to extinction,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director at the Center. “Fish and Game needs to redo the report and propose concrete actions to reduce the destructive impacts of fish stocking.”

California Trout said of the draft EIR, “Our primary concern is the limited scope of DEIR. The stated purpose of the DEIR is “to continue rearing and stocking fish from existing hatchery facilities for recreational anglers.” This self fulfilling purpose compromises the document from the beginning.

Montana has 56 species of native fish and while we certainly can’t say that we have done a bang-up job of protecting all of our natives, it is evident that we have come a long way since pioneering conservationists like Bud Lilly, Dick McGuire, Bud Morris and others began the fight to save our wild fish populations. It took millions of years to develop genetics that are uniquely suited to Big Sky waters. Diluting them with vastly inferior “engineered” fish definitely ain’t a smart thing to do. For a quick overview of the history of the fight in Montana to save our wild fish, see the most recent edition of the Montana Trout Unlimited newsletter Trout Line. Consider the problems that California has and be extremely grateful that you live in Montana.

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