Out with the trout is what it’s all about (Point Reyes Light, 12.04.2008)

Rainbow trout will not be stocked in Marin County’s Alpine, Bon Tempe and Lagunitas Lakes until an environmental impact report is submitted by the Department of Fish and Game, the Superior Court ordered last week.

“Multiple species of native fish and frogs are in peril because of one particular practice,” said Chris Frissell, director of science and conservation at Pacific Rivers Council. “Some of the places we’re talking about are pristine ecosystems, and the main stressor that remains is the very reversible practice of stocking fish.”

Until January 2010, the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) must stop all nonnative fish stocking in bodies of water throughout the state where there are any of 25 specified species—a compilation of amphibian and fish listed as federal or state endangered species or species of concern.

Fish and frogs in the interim

In early November, Pacific Rivers Council and Center for Biological Diversity asked for interim restrictions on stocking to reduce impacts while the environmental impact report (EIR) is prepared. After weeks of negotiations with DFG, an interim agreement was reached last week.

“DFG can continue with their stocking program in places where there likely aren’t any target species at risk,” Frissell said. “We crafted assurances for the places where the natives species are hanging on.”

In Marin, that means Alpine, Bon Tempe and Lagunitas lakes will not be stocked with rainbow trout but will remain open for fishing. “This is a popular recreational fishing destination in Bay Area,” said Gregory Andrew, fishery program manager of the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD), which manages the reservoirs.

Scottsdale Pond, McInnis Park Pond, and Stafford Lake will continue to be stocked. The court order listed several exceptions—fish can still be planted if it supports scientific research or enhances salmon and steelhead populations. In particular, fish can still be planted in human-made reservoirs if they are over 1,000 acres, unconnected to rivers or streams, or not places where red-legged frogs are known to exist.

“Red-legged frogs are known to occur in artificial ponds. That’s not known of the other 24 species on that list,” Frissell said. “Some of the last populations are found in farm ponds. They’re troopers, making the best of what little is available to them, but that’s not enough to get them through the next 20 years.” According to Andrew, red-legged frogs have never been found in MMWD reservoirs.

California red-legged frogs have been listed as threatened by U.S. Fish and Wildlife since 1996. “They’ve been declining for about 150 years, and their disappearance is correlated with habitat alteration and introduced fish,” said Roland Knapp, a research biologist at Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory.

In Mark Twain’s 1865 short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” the red-legged frog was common. “Now it’s hard to find anywhere,” Knapp said. “We don’t have control over all the impacts on the red-legged frog, but the fish stocking practice is something we can potentially change.”

Native trout have survived for tens of thousands of years in California. “When we mess with the ecosystem by bringing in fish evolved elsewhere, it changes the genetics and behavioral capacity of fish,” Frissell said.

In the short term, hatchery fish can displace the native stock through competition, predation, disease transfers and genetic hybridization. “But in the long run, they aren’t adapted for the long-term stress of living in California—extended drought followed by intense winter precipitation,” Frissell said.

Lawsuits and orders

This story began when Pacific Rivers Council and the Center for Biological Diversity sued DFG in October 2006.

“A lot of scientific evidence was stacking up year after year for the consequences of fish stocking on native species. On the other side of the teeter totter was DFG continuing their stocking programs without modifying them with scientific evidence,” Frissell said.

In 2007, the court required DFG to complete an EIR to analyze and mitigate the impacts of the fish stocking program that had existed for over 100 years—long before the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) of 1972, which sought to prevent avoidable environmental damages. “The lawsuit was a culmination of several years of trying to get DFG to change aspects of the stocking program,” said Knapp.

“The outcome of that suit was not a judge making a decision one way or another. The order was for us to find out about the impacts,” said Jordan Traverso from DFG. The EIR should be completed by January 2010.

Fish stockings

The program was established to enhance fishing and species survival, according to Traverso. “Then over the years, small communities that we’ve been stocking in have become reliant on the tourism dollars,” Traverso said. “Some communities are just a few bait shops, a restaurant and a gear shop.”

According to Andrew, Lagunitas and Bon Tempe were routinely planted with catchable rainbow trout, and Alpine Lake periodically received young fingerlings.

Central California steelhead are on that list of 25, and preventing the genetic mixing of steelhead and rainbow trout is a concern for MMWD as well. Rainbow trout and steelhead are the same species—steelhead is the ocean going form. “We want to maintain the integrity of steelhead gene pool, the wild stock,” Andrew said.

If the moratorium on fish stocking becomes permanent, Alpine and Bon Tempe would support warm water fisheries only—bass, blue gill and sunfish. Without rainbow trout, Lagunitas would only have small minnows and a few native fish—not fish that are caught by anglers.

“The best case scenario would be a thorough attempt to describe the stocking program, its impact and means by which impacts can be mitigated,” Knapp said.

“In our view, what needs to come out is a policy that corresponds to the findings,” Frissell said. “In most cases, removal is really not practical, so it’s critical to stop stocking because it’s irreversible.”

~ by Janet Fang on December 5, 2008.

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