Stand Up For Our Waters
Michael Alberghini / Sportsmen’s Compass Team Member
What will be the future of our fisheries?
Seemingly every week there has been a new disaster affecting a world-class fishery. The last few months all I’ve seen on my news feed were massive fish kills in Florida from Lake Okeechobee runoff and on the Banana River and Indian Lagoon. More recently, the Proliferative Kidney Disease wiping out Mountain Whitefish on the Yellowstone. A million dead Peanut Bunker off the coast of New Jersey. The list goes on and on. While some of these events are surely freak accidents, there are just a few too many for me to comfortably consider them all a “coincidence.”
Call it whatever you want, Global Warming, Climate Change, whatever; something is happening that is throwing our environment out of balance. This combined with a lack of attention given to these issues by anglers ensures that little is done to anticipate these events and learn to cope or avoid them. Let’s not forget that even in todays age there is still a lot of point source pollution, and our lust for growth consistently leaves our natural resources out to dry. The time has come and gone for us to preemptively act on this, and we now have to deal with these issues front and center.
Let’s first begin with The Yellowstone River. By now I’m sure you’ve heard all about it. Tetracalsula bryosalmonae is a freshwater parasite that carries PKD, or Proliferative Kidney Disease. PKD along with T. bryosalmonae together are responsible for the thousands of dead Mountain Whitefish on the Yellowstone. What many fail to realize, is that this disease is nothing new. PKD and this parasite have affected fish stocks in Montana before, as well as in Idaho, Oregon and other states. In general, the fish die off every year is not terrible and sometimes goes largely unnoticed. What intensifies the die off and creates what we’ve seen here, is the temperature and CFS flow of the river. Low, warm water magnifies the effects of the disease and in turn kills the fish. The added stress is the straw thats breaking the whitefish’s back.
Unfortunately, this is not the scary headline that news reporters like to write, so the blame turns to the parasite and disease. How about the anglers who spread the disease around in the first place? We all have been told how to stop the spread of aquatic invasive species with our fishing equipment, but how many of us religiously clean it? The same goes for Didymosphenia geminate A.K.A. didymo or “rock snot.”Everyone complains about it, but we also fail to acknowledge the fact that we as anglers put it there in the first place. If you care so deeply about the effect it has on the river system, surely you’re willing to take the time to prevent its spread to new watersheds, right?
Moving on from this, let’s discuss the fish kills in North Florida. There were two main factors that contributed to this perfect storm. High winter temps along with unusual amounts of rainfall. These two unusual weather trends are evidence of a deviating and changing weather pattern. The warm water gave way to a large algal bloom, and the rainwater washed fertilizers and other algae food into the waterways. This massive algal bloom led to a crash in the system, completely depleting all of the dissolved oxygen in the water, killing everything. Fish, oysters, aquatic vegetation, all of it affected and it will be a long uphill battle to recover.
More recently there was a mass die off of peanut bunker off the coast of New Jersey. Hundreds of thousands of bunker entered a marina, and due to low oxygen levels were killed. This has now happened twice in one week… Now it’s easy to say that there were just too many fish in the small marina. But in reality, what caused the ecosystem to crash was likely caused by a combination of pollution from runoff, fertilizer in that runoff creating algae and vegetation overgrowth, and just a general imbalance directly from the human contribution. Of course this is difficult to determine and even more difficult to point a finger.
On a more positive note, I want to mention a good example of preemptive action to protect a fishery. A few weeks ago there were high water temperature conditions on the West Branch of the Farmington River in Connecticut. Knowing the massive amount of angling pressure that this river sees daily, the state decided to close sections down to protect the fish. Well done, and this needs to happen more in other states. In Montana, there are the Hoot Owl restrictions. These restrict fishing from 2:00 PM until Midnight on whichever bodies of water the restrictions are implemented. Personally I’d rather see a 24 hour closure if the water temps get into an unsafe range during any part of the day, but Montana needs its tourist revenue so 24 hour fishing bans happen only during an emergency. Conversely, In New York, the Delaware River system is constantly being affected by low, warm water conditions. Except on the Delaware system, fishing is never closed for unsafe water temps. It is all on scouts honor to conduct yourself as a sportsman.
Preventative action, preventative action, preventative action. Ok, I’ve said it a lot, what do I mean? Let’s take a case in Colorado for example. Colorado has a lot of inactive mines, about 23,000 to be exact. These mines all leak into watersheds, some more than others. After last Year’s Gold King Mine spill, the state has taken “measures” to evaluate potential threats to new major spills. While not a valiant effort by any means, this is the kind of attitude necessary to protect our environment from future disasters.
Our future climate will contain more severe weather events. More droughts, more floodings, more extreme high and low temperatures, and just a general imbalance in our usual weather patterns. Our fisheries will have to adapt to these changes in order to survive. For most species, this will require a move more poleward, and to reach higher elevations if possible. Some will be able to accomplish this, and actually even benefit from it. Some, will not be so lucky. As anglers we need to study these changes, and change our regulations to protect our fisheries.
For example, Tuna may begin to migrate into waters that they historically did not inhabit. These new areas may not have strict limits and regulations on Tuna fishing because it wasn’t necessary in the past. As you could imagine, Tuna fishermen will begin to fish these new areas and without proper regulation, can quickly put a beating on the population.
While freshwater species may not suffer from commercial fishing like saltwater species do, some will suffer from a lack of suitable habitat. Undeniably, coldwater species will see the brunt of these effects. Diminishing habitat will effect every single coldwater species of fish, especially those that live in rivers and streams. Warmwater species will be fine for the most part, some may even flourish due to an expanded range of suitable habitat. Just like saltwater species, we will need to adjust our regulations. Maybe we shouldn’t be allowed to keep as many trout anymore, maybe we need to stop fishing during the spawn. These are things we need to evaluate, and sacrifices will undoubtedly need to be made.
Human impact is just as severe as climate change. Over fishing, pollution, deforestation, there are so many ways we adversely affect fisheries. With an ever growing population we are quickly expanding our infrastructure, and sometimes (most of the time) our natural resources get neglected. This has to change as well if we want to be fishing for wild Steelhead or Brook Trout in 50 years.
What we need to do is anticipate these events, not just deal with the aftermath. We cannot continue to sit by, wait for the disaster, complain, then clean up. We need to take preventative measures during high risk time periods when we know that fish populations will be extra vulnerable. It’s time for all of us to stand up, be proactive and not rely on the other guy. Get involved with groups like Trout Unlimited, Sierra Club, Conservation Law Foundation, International Game Fish Association, or your local river, lake, or coastal organization. Stay informed and stand up for the waters that are important to us.
There is one last thing I would like to mention, then I will end my rant. Wild Steelhead on the coast of the western United States are no stranger to human impact. In a recent video by Pacific Rivers, Frank Moore is interviewed on the work he’s done to protect the North Umpqua watershed. I want to leave you with a quote from him, this really stayed with me, and I hope this helps drive my (and his) message home:
“ We can manage it foolishly and lose that resource, or we can do it correctly and maintain it forever. For the animals, and for the human race, too. Why not do it right?”