April 4, 2008

Fish Stocking in California - An Early History

My posts during the next few weeks will focus on the fish stocking program of the California Department of Fish and Game. This program provides important and cherished recreational opportunities, but has also caused unintended environmental impacts, including impacts to the mountain yellow-legged frog (www.mylfrog.info).

The practice of stocking fish has a long and interesting history. This worldwide tradition has its roots in a desire but us humans to improve the landscapes in which we find ourselves by adding something that we recognize and that has some obvious utility (i.e., food). We also seem to have a fascination with fish. These two predilections come together in the practice of stocking fish. To make sense of today's fish stocking practices in California, it is important to understand the history that underlies this program.

In California's Sierra Nevada, early settlers found that most of the streams and lakes near their homestead, mine, or logging camp were fishless, and the amphibians and invertebrates had no obvious value to those intent on carving their niche out of this wild landscape. And so trout that were native to lower elevations creeks and rivers were moved in buckets to fishless waters higher up the mountains, and those fish provided food and fun in those early hardscrabble days.

By the late 19th and early 20th century, the high country of the Sierra Nevada was earning the deserved attention of increasing numbers of adventurers, and those climbers and explorers brought with them the same predilections for trout as those that had homesteaded in the Sierra Nevada a generation earlier. In the High Sierra, they beheld a landscape entirely devoid of fish. "Correcting" this became a form of recreation unto itself and was undertaken with characteristic zeal. Individuals, fish-stocking clubs, hiking clubs (including the Sierra Club), and the U.S. military (which managed Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks for a time) all contributed to this fish stocking mission, hauling trout into the high country using horses and mules (see photo) and moving fish between high country lakes and streams using cooking pots and coffee cans.

These early fish stocking efforts were loosely coordinated by the California Fish and Game Commission (the precursor to the current California Department of Fish and Game), but were rather haphazard affairs that took little notice of what species of trout had been stocked previously or even whether a particular lake was suitable for trout. The goal was simply to stock as many fishless waters as possible, and understandably the details were of little importance. By the 1940s, the many individual fish stocking efforts had been subsumed within a single agency that was responsible for managing Califoria's fish and wildlife: the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG).

Next week: how the California Department of Fish and Game's fish stocking program failed to keep up with changing times....

Back to The Mountain Yellow-legged Frog Site.

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