April 18, 2008

Dragging the Fish Stocking Program into the 21st Century

By the late-1990s, the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) was increasingly under fire for its failure to consider the impacts of its Sierra Nevada fish stocking program on native aquatic species, including the mountain yellow-legged frog. Despite an unprecedented effort by the CDFG to survey the thousands of lakes and ponds under their jurisdiction for amphibians and nonnative trout (and the resulting internal report describing widespread impacts of nonnative trout on amphibians), the CDFG never formalized any fish stocking guidelines designed to minimize impacts to Sierra Nevada ecosystems. I suppose the logic was that if there was no official CDFG policy, then the stocking program could not be held to account. Rumors of internal (unofficial) policy changes circulated for years, but it was clear that these guidelines were not being followed consistently across the Sierra Nevada. If changes were made to the fish stocking program, they were made behind closed doors and were never disclosed to the public.

Despite an overwhelming body of scientific evidence pointing to impacts of nonnative trout on Sierra Nevada lake ecosystems, the CDFG continued to claim that the stocking program was exempt from the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA was signed into law in 1970 to ensure that projects carried out by public and private entities (including State agencies) were conducted such that significant effects on the environment were avoided or mitigated. As I wrote in a chapter in the 1996 Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project final report (Volume 3, Chapter 8), the CDFG claim that the fish stocking program did not have the potential to cause environmental impacts and was therefore exempt from CEQA was clearly not justified.

Several environmental groups, particularly Trout Unlimited, Pacific Rivers Council, and the Center for Biological Diversity, repeatedly warned the CDFG that unless the fish stocking program was modified to reduce environmental impacts they would challenge the CEQA exemption that the CDFG had claimed for 35 years. Once again, denial ruled the day and stocking continued as usual. On October 5, 2006, the Stanford Law School Environmental Law Clinic sued the CDFG on behalf of the Pacific Rivers Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, requesting that all further fish stocking throughout California be halted until the CDFG complied with CEQA.

On May 4, 2007, the Court ruled that the CDFG fish stocking program is not exempt from CEQA and that the CDFG is violating CEQA by their failure to conduct an environmental review of the program (ruling available here). In response, the CDFG agreed to write an Environmental Impact Report for the stocking program by late 2008. So, for the first time in the history of this program the CDFG will finally have to disclose to the public the program's scope, impacts, and mitigations. I'm hopeful this disclosure will result in a fish stocking program that is more closely guided by the best available science. That can only lead to better management of California's recreational fisheries. It's too bad it took a lawsuit to achieve this end.

Back to The Mountain Yellow-legged Frog Site.

No comments:

Post a Comment