Images of the West: Feeding Fish

Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but stock his lake with fry and he’s got himself a feast — for a little while anyway. That was the thinking behind the U.S. Fish Commission’s actions since its inception in 1871 when Spencer Fullerton Baird acted as its first Commissioner.

To put things in perspective, the country was just emerging from the Civil War, men were moving West by hordes and bringing with them practices that already had a huge impact on East Coast fisheries. The iron furnaces needed for industry consumed an acre of forest a day, farmers tore up the land for crops, and the resulting erosion, silting of lakes and streams as well as flooding and fluctuating water levels left many rich fisheries in deep trouble. Add to that the streams harnessed for dams to power mills, as well as other industrial endeavors, and as early as the 1760s people were seeing the decline of habitat that would haunt them for a long time to come.

In the mid-1800s small private fisheries began popping up in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New Jersey.

In 1853 Theodatus Garlick and H.A. Ackley figured out how to fertilize the eggs of a brook trout, displaying their findings and fry at the Ohio State Fair. The next trick was to figure out how get them to grow, and in 1859 Stephen Ainsworth of West Bloomfield, N.Y., began hatching brook trout, selling the eggs as well as the fry. In 1869, the Connecticut Fish Commission began a program to stock bass in as many places as they could, and by 1870 bass had been introduced into five New England states.

“They fundamentally started out trying to widen the distribution of popular food fish,” according to John Varley, former director of the Yellowstone Center for Resources at Yellowstone National Park, and now Executive Director of the Big Sky Institute at Montana State University. “The word ‘sport fishing’ wasn’t even being used yet.”

The driving force behind the U.S. Fish Commission, which was later to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was to feed the country, to make sure every person had access to fish as food.
“They thought they were doing the Lord’s work,” Varley said. “The Eastern brook trout, native only to the Appalachian Mountains as far south as Georgia, were distributed all over the country.”

At the age of 27, Spencer Fullerton Baird was already a well-respected scientist, and in 1850, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. As part of his vision for the Smithsonian he accrued a small scientific natural history collection, which brought to his attention the plight of American fisheries in 1863. (Darwin had published his Origin of Species in 1859.) Baird saw a great opportunity to apply science to the fish dilemma. Over the next seven years he got various volunteers, scientists and students, to investigate the fisheries and in 1871 the U.S. Fish Commission was established for just that purpose.

In the Fisheries Service Bulletin, dated February 1, 1921, in an article entitled “Semicentennal of the Bureau of Fisheries,” it stated that the “chief aid the Federal Government could render would be through the artificial propagation of food fishes, which soon became and has since remained the most extensive branch of the service.”

With the marvelous success of the bass and the soon to be successful introduction of shad in the Mississippi Valley, the country found itself taking fish from the East Coast and transplanting it on the West Coast, where California’s river and stream degradation was hitting its stride from the result of mining techniques.

In order to get these transplants from Eastern fish hatcheries to the rivers and lakes in the West, special “fish cars” were built to keep the eggs and fry alive during the arduous railroad journey. On the first trip in 1874, just five years after the first transcontinental rail linkup, Dr. Livingston Stone transported the fish in open milk cans, changing the water every two hours, if he could find fresh water. By 1879 the cans of fish were kept cool by ice and fellow passengers were hired on the spot to help aerate the water by hand.

“All of agriculture at that time was directed toward the subsistence farmer,” Varley said. “Like the Homestead Act, the idea was how to get people to make a living on the land that the government wanted populated. They could plant a tree, or a field of wheat, but what better food was there than fish? There’s no better protein. They wanted to make the desert blossom as a rose.”

But it wasn’t just the West Coast that got the fish from the fish cars. All along the way the trains would stop at rail stations and Fish and Game, along with private landowners, would come with milk cans of their own to get eggs and fry to plant in their own lakes or ponds — or even their favorite fishing spots — and it was all for free. The hatchery folks were happy to oblige.

Even Yellowstone National Park was not free of the non-native invasion. When Yellowstone Park was established, 40 percent of its area was barren of fish. And in 1881 Superintendent Philetus W. Norris suggested that carp be brought into the park. Fortunately, he was unable to establish the carp there, but he did succeed in being the first to stock fish in the park when he moved some cutthroat trout from Trout Lake in northeastern Yellowstone to several ponds nearby.

The goal of the park managers was to keep the ponds and streams stocked so visitors could go home boasting about their great catches. In 1897, a report about fishing in Yellowstone Lake outlet was printed in the Overland Monthly: “There were so many fish that there was no great pleasure in catching them; it was all too easy.” According to park records, excessive harvests were often taken and then thrown away as soon as a picture was taken. Very soon, it became apparent that there would not be many fish left if something wasn’t done about it.

“They tried things in Yellowstone that, thank god, were failures,” Varley said. “They planted large-mouth bass in the Firehole basin and Atlantic Salmon in Yellowstone Lake.”
As sport fishing became popular, so did the California rainbow trout, which can now be found on nearly every single continent in the world.

“The rainbow trout won the sweepstakes,” Varley said. “Because it was so easy to culture and loved every kind of water you put them in. They reproduced well and they were popular with the sporting fishermen because they would fight.”

An amazing example of the versatility of the rainbow trout is their ability to adapt to extremes.

“When I think about the rainbow trout I think of their ‘plastic’ genes,” Varley said.

No other trout has been able to survive the warm temperatures of the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park except for the rainbow.

“That river is about 90 degrees — that’s bathtub water,” Varley said. “Brook trout couldn’t make it there and the brown trout had a hard time. But the rainbow changed their life history around making that habitat work.”
Usually the rainbow spawns in the spring, from May to June. But the rainbow in the Firehole managed to change their spawning time to December, when the water was cool enough to support their eggs.
“That’s huge,” Varley said. “These are tightly genetically controlled genes — they’re hard-wired in there. It’s simply remarkable.”

But continuing to stock park waters was not the answer and the writing was on the wall.

In the book Yellowstone Fishers by John Varley and Paul Schullery, they write, “Even before the National Park Service was created in 1916, at a time when introduction of exotic fish to North American waters was still at the height of fashion, the army administrators of Yellowstone had to make the extraordinary decision to cease all introduction of non-native fish. By the first decade of the 20th century, a few of Yellowstone’s managers realized that it was foolish to indiscriminately stock fish in park waters without thought or planning.”

As proof of their forward thinking, in 1907, D.C. Booth, a Fish Commission employee, was given a reprimand by his superior for planting rainbow trout in Yellowstone Lake.
One of the problems that occurred at the turn of the century was when they introduced brown trout in places where only cutthroat trout had been, not realizing that all trout are not the same. In fact, brown trout and lake trout are piscivorous, and so were able to outcompete 18 subspecies of cutthroat trout, some of which are extinct today.

Just when the park thought it had the situation under control, sometime in the 1980s an “eco-terrorist” put lake trout into Yellowstone Lake.

“It was like a smorgasbord for those lake trout,” Varley said. “The cutthroat who grew up in the lake thought they were living in Shangri-La — everybody got along with everybody. And then the lake trout showed up and had a hay day. Today the cutthroat are less than one-quarter of what it was and it’s still declining.”

The park put out a $20,000 reward for information on who put the lake trout in Yellowstone Lake, but to this day they don’t know much about it.

Except for one thing. The Lake trout came from Lewis Lake, a body of water just 12 miles away. And back in 1891 the Fish Commission stocked that lake with those lake trout.

Mixing fish species had another strange consequence. Hybridization.

“I know I’m making a judgment that purebreds are good, but if you no longer have pure strains then you’ve lost genetic material that cannot be recovered,” Varley said. “Those genes may be important to the survival of something in the future, you just don’t know.”

Spencer Baird died in 1887, serving out to his death the post of U.S. Fish Commissioner as well as Superintendent of the Smithsonian. Believing his scientific exploration pivotal in the success of the United States as a developed country was evidenced in his obituary printed in the New York Times, August 19, 1887: “The services he rendered in this capacity [as U.S. Fish Commissioner] in increasing the food supply of the world alone would justify a national monument to his memory.”

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