December 29, 2008

The Angling Community's Dark Side

For thirty years I was passionate about fly fishing and carried a fly rod and a box of hand-tied flies wherever I went in wild places throughout California and the West. As a kid, fishing connected me to aquatic habitats and led me on a life-long pursuit of an endless list of ecological questions: Why did some lakes harbor a few large fish and others many small fish? What species of mayfly was that hatching in June in low elevation lakes in Yosemite? Why did I rarely find mountain yellow-legged frogs co-occuring with introduced trout in Sierran lakes? What invertebrates used to occur in these lakes before trout introductions? My enthusiasm for fly fishing was eventually tempered by the results of my own research that showed how dramatically fish introductions had altered the lakes and streams of the Sierra Nevada. After the passage of Assembly Bill 7 in 2005, the bill that required that a larger portion of fishing license dollars be spent raising hatchery trout, I finally gave up fly fishing entirely, no longer able to justify buying a fishing license and in doing so directly supporting the California Department of Fish and Game's (CDFG) stocking practices.

Today I often find myself at odds with the majority of California's angling community, a majority that often rails loudly at any efforts to modernize the CDFG stocking program and protests any proposal to restore native amphibians by removing selected nonnative trout populations. The majority's most vocal spokesmen (yes, they are all men) use newspapers as their bully pulpit to stir their angling readers into a froth over a wide range of angling issues, including the recent stocking moratorium in some California waters (see my December 1, 2008 post for an example). In doing so, they have repeatedly failed to recognize changing public sentiment that increasingly favors protection for endangered species and wild lands, and have refused to acknowledge that fish introductions have resulted in widespread impacts to aquatic ecosystems. This "head in the sand" approach is leading to an ever-increasing reliance on put-and-take stocking programs and to the view that California's lakes, streams, and rivers are little more than glorified hatchery raceways where we can dump thousands of hatchery-reared trout without negative consequences to the resident trout and to the native vertebrate and invertebrate fauna.

During all of this debate and rhetoric, a commonly-voiced sentiment is one that has anglers as the "original environmentalists", caring deeply for the habitats that sustain their quarry. Perhaps that is true, but I sure don't see much evidence of it these days. In fishing-related chat rooms (e.g., High Sierra Topix) it is common to find posts claiming that introduced trout have no negative impacts on native biodiversity, that the claim of fish effects on mountain yellow-legged frogs is a hoax perpetrated by wacko scientists (like yours truly), and urging anglers to take fish stocking into their own hands and move fish into the few lakes that remain
fishless. Such rhetoric will do nothing to improve California's fisheries.

In our haste to catch fish, it seems that we've forgotten that the quality of fishing is intimately connected to the health of the ecosystem. The decline of mountain yellow-legged frogs shouldn't be seen as a threat to fishing but as an indicator that all is not well in aquatic habitats of the Sierra Nevada. Should we care that trout introductions have impacted a large number of native taxa, from Callibaetis mayflies to mountain garter snakes to Gray-crowned Rosy Finches? I think so, because even from the most angler-centric view declines in these species indicate the loss of important trout prey. If we claim to love the Sierra Nevada so much, how can we not care about these impacts?

California's angling community could be a powerful agent for change - for healthy habitats and better fisheries - if it could shelve the rhetoric and roll up their collective sleeves to do the hard work of coming up with a plan to manage California's fisheries, wildlife, and habitats for a sustainable future.

Back to The Mountain Yellow-legged Frog Site.


  1. Hi Roland,

    I think the angling community would like to have input to the process and help. Most of us are unsure how to do that.

    Maybe you could shed light on the best way to help.


  2. Hi Russ. I'll provide some thoughts on this important topic in an upcoming Frog Blog post.