The Case For Native

Undoubtedly, one of the most highly debated topics within the fishing world is the conservation of native fish species. As humans encroach further and further into the natural world, many of our previously untouched water bodies have become cesspools of human destruction. There are countless reasons for the loss of native species, but one thing’s for certain: humans are almost always behind it. For some reason or another, we feel an inherent need to tamper with the work of Mother Nature. When we screw up, it is up to us to play the role of Mother Nature, which doesn’t always end well. Though most native species are all but thriving, there is no denying that they are crucial to a healthy environment.

I want to start off by saying I am not a scientist; while I have some fairly strong opinions, and have done a lot more research than the average person, everything I say needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Even if I was an actual fisheries biologist writing this post, there is no telling if any of this information will be relevant or correct with the passing of a few years. Technology and science change at an incredibly rapid rate. I would love to be able to see the future, but unfortunately, I cannot.

Sometimes, I find myself imagining the scale of the impact humans have had on nature. Think about if everywhere humans have stepped lighted up highlighter yellow. Would there be any dull, uncolored spots left anywhere in the world? A lone stump or rock, still unchanged since the days before humanity. Obviously, these places must exist somewhere; however, I believe there are a lot fewer of them than you might think. Even the most remote, untouched places, like the woods of northern Maine, have been disturbed at some point. People venture to these places to find solitude, and to go where no man has ever gone before.

Before you start thinking about how cool it would be to find one of those few remaining undisturbed spots, let me ask you this: is it worth it? Do the benefits of being one of the lucky few to step foot in these pristine areas outweigh the negatives? As soon as you place your foot in that small patch of drab wilderness, there is one fewer of those areas left. Just think that if everyone did that, there would certainly be no true natural spots still on Earth.

Now picture this same highlighted system was true for water. Since the dawn of time, man has striven to make their mark on every corner of the world. Now, anglers carry out that legacy by looking for the most secluded backwoods brooks and ponds, searching for the last remaining populations of fish that have yet to be caught. Here in New England, we often think of this as blue-lining: looking on maps for the smallest creeks and brooks that hopefully harbor the region’s most iconic native fish, the brook trout. I hate to break it to you, but every single one of those water bodies on the map have probably already been fished. Not only that, but nature has likely been tampered with prior to your discovery of it.

Even scenic lakes like this one deep in the north woods of Maine have invasive species. Photo credit: David Belson

As aforementioned, man has an inherent need to play the role of Mother Nature. We come across these back country tributaries and lakes and think to ourselves, “You know what would make this place better?” Often, the answer seems obvious at the time, but soon it becomes the cause of much dispute and tension. Invasive fish species are introduced, waterside plants are cleared, and we have soon lost another gem of the natural world. To the eye of the person that made these changes, it seems like no damage has occurred. The bass were added because they grow to larger sizes and fight better than the trout and chubs that were already there. The alders were cut down to allow for more casting room and better bank access. It may appear benign, but they have detrimental impacts to the environment. Invasive species like bass quickly out compete the native species for food, shelter, and spawning ground. The open space reduces shade (increasing stream temperature), decreases the riparian buffer, and causes erosion. A once healthy looking stream can quickly be turned into a shallow and unnaturally warm trickle that only a couple incredibly resilient species can reside in.

So why all the fuss? It’s not like these altered ecosystems provide any worse fishing than the unchanged ones, so why should we care? Well, the common theme within all these pristine waterways is the native species they hold. Obviously, these species will vary from region to region, but whatever the case, if humans haven’t changed it, then only the species that are have existed and thrived there forever can be found.

Native species are crucial to the environment. They act as keystone species in food chains, necessary for the flow of energy to function as it was meant to. We have already found that by removing these indigenous fish, the entire ecosystem around them can collapse. Take for example Atlantic species of herring, like blueback and alewife. When these critical species began to decline in the mid-to-late twentieth century due to the loss of spawning habitat, so did the populations of many other ocean-dwelling invertebrates that preyed on the fish. Puffins, whales, cod, and even the beloved bluefin tuna saw serious declines in their populations as a result. As herring populations begin to rebound thanks to efforts by many conservation organizations, we too see the numbers of these other species beginning to increase as well.

Similar cases, to the same extent, are occurring in freshwater. These native species are like the subjects of a massive, worldwide experiment in which we attempt to push the limits of nature to its breaking point. Even with increased public education and awareness, invasive species still get introduced, dams continue to be built, and riparian buffers are reduced to concrete sidewalks and interstate highways. We need to protect these species, not just for future generations to enjoy, which some may claim is selfish, but also to keep nature as natural as possible.

We also need to consider that all of the indigenous fishes, not just the popular ones, must be protected. Throughout Appalachia, the brook trout is the figurehead of native fish. They are gorgeous, easy to fool, and taste pretty good for those who enjoy keeping their catch; however, they are not the only fish that we need to care about. Redfin pickerel, fallfish, and chain pickerel have been here before humankind, as have less popular species like white suckers, fourspine stickleback, and American eel. They need just as much help as the oh-so-precious brookies, and in some cases, even more.

Fallfish are an underappreciated species that are critical to certain aquatic environments. Photo Credit: Brendan Murnane.

Now, since we’ve interfered with the work of nature, we have to fix our mistakes, too. There are numerous ways that these creatures are threatened, and just as many ways that we can help. Honestly, the best way to do so is to get involved with a local conservation group that understands the issues and how to solve them, like Native Fish Coalition or Trout Unlimited.

I’m sure this will be the first of many posts I make about fisheries conservation seeing as I barely even skimmed the surface of the immense topic. Mostly, this was just a rant, brought on by a serious case of cabin fever (how long until spring?!). There is no doubt that I will delve deeper into some of the intricacies of this field, but again, from the perspective of a passionate angler, not a scientist. I hope everyone is able to take advantage of this unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having recently, and can start off 2021 strong with some decent fish.

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