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Ripple effect

The fishy history of rainbow trout

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Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. But give a fisherman a fish and he may well insist that you keep stocking his local Bureau of Reclamation reservoir until the cows come home. That's one lesson to be taken from Anders Halverson's An Entirely Synthetic Fish.

Another, in what's becoming a familiar but reliably fascinating narrative underlying almost every aspect of human endeavor outside of Facebook, is that messing with mother nature—nice or not—almost always ends up opening a Costco-sized can of worms.

Halverson's can-opener is the rainbow trout, the iconic piscatorial prey of the clearwater West, an economic engine of the post-industrial age, and watery repository for homo sapiens' ongoing battle for, and with, the world as we found it. But slice one of those slippery little ichthys open and inside, if you know what you're looking for, you'll find a history of human meddlesomeness that's redrawn the map of America's faunal landscape as a tangle of unintended consequences.

An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World - Anders Halverson - hardcover, Yale University Press - 288 pages, $26.00
  • An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the WorldAnders Halversonhardcover, Yale University Press288 pages, $26.00

Hardcore Montana fish aficionados may be familiar with Halverson's drift, and Montana biologists and fishery managers are well represented in his history. But one needn't be a fisherman or a scientist to appreciate the tale.

The story starts, engagingly enough, with an incident during the Crimean War, when 670 British cavalry charged with predictable fruitlessness into a phalanx of Russian artillery. The soldiers' suicidal bravery became a global cause célèbre, and inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson to pen "The Charge of the Light Brigade," with its now-classic lines: "Theirs not to wonder why / Theirs but to do or die."

Across the ocean, Vermonter George Perkins Marsh, an early American conservationist, had another explanation for the soldiers' unblinking valor. It was rooted, Marsh thought, in lessons learned by field and stream.

In contrast, Marsh wrote to the Vermont Legislature in 1857, "The people of New England are suffering, both physically and morally, from a too close and absorbing attention to pecuniary interests, and occupations of mere routine ... We have notoriously less physical hardihood and endurance than the generation which preceded our own, our habits are those of less bodily activity; the sports of the field, and the athletic games with which the village green formerly rung upon every military and civil holiday, are now abandoned, and we have become not merely a more thoughtful and earnest, but, it is to be feared, a duller, as well as a more effeminate, and less bold and spirited nation."

In other words, Americans were turning soft. And Marsh (whose comments, hysterically enough, were part of a report on Vermont's dwindling fisheries) figured more regular exposure to fighting fish was just the thing to toughen them up.

Thus began more than a century of policy designed to take America fishing.

The perfect fish to firm up America's flagging manhood turned out to be a salmonid known variously as Sacramento River trout, common mountain trout, red-banded trout, and in the local native tongue, syóolott, aka rainbow trout. That this particular fish swam only in the waters of the west coast was considered no deterrent to American ingenuity, leading to an almost unbelievable story in which repurposed military airplanes carpet-bombed high mountain lakes and reservoirs alike with millions of fingerling trout, pausing occasionally to poison entire watersheds to rid them of less desirable natives and make way for the preferred interlopers.

Halverson, a Ph.D. in ecology from Yale and research associate at the University of Colorado's Center of the American West, is a fly-fisher, and that avocation lends An Entirely Synthetic Fish a light personal touch that spins his story smoothly through what could have been an unnavigable knot of bureaucratic resource management, equal parts well-intentioned and misguided. His indictment of a naïve and inertial fisheries policy that's led to pointless expenditure, outbreaks of whirling disease, and hybridization with, for instance, Montana's native westslope cutthroat trout is sympathetic, as befits the benefit of hindsight.

If there's a nit to pick, it's that subtitle: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World. That beguiled is a bit of miscasting. Rainbows seems less to have beguiled America than to have been kidnapped, indentured in servitude to the country's self-serving fetish for wild nature. It's a final irony that in enabling Americans to feel better about their progressive and steady disconnection from the outdoors, rainbows themselves have become enfeebled, fishery-hatched and genetically diffuse.

Don't blame the fish.

Anders Halverson reads from An Entirely Synthetic Fish at Fact & Fiction Thursday, Feb. 10, at 7 PM. Free.

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