COVID-19 is not the only invasive to come from a foreign country. Since the Spaniards reintroduced the horse to the Americas, waterways and the land have been transformed by species brought across oceans to be used as beasts of burden, food and pets. As society became centralized the native wildlife and fish were eliminated by either people, or by the fact native plants, animals and fish could not compete with the introduced invasive species.
In regard to fisheries, Wyoming is the object of discussion for the rest of this column. By the end of the 19th century, native fish such as sturgeon, paddlefish and cutthroat trout had been consumed as a source of food by those who settled the land and also by those who called themselves sporting anglers. We have all seen the old photos of fish hung on a rope by the dozens in family albums or historical documents.
Native fisheries were not managed by anyone so the sky was the limit. The more fish caught and killed indicated one was a magnificent angler. The angler could not feed just his family but, indeed, an entire village without fear of reprisal by a local sheriff or game warden.
Not only fisheries were devastated but so were elk, deer, antelope, moose, bears and bighorn sheep with the sporting mentality ruling the day. It wasn’t until big game and fish populations crashed in the late 1800s before that the State of Wyoming formed a wildlife and fish management agency now known as Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
At the same time Wyoming’s fisheries were virtually eliminated, so were native wild trout fisheries around the rest of the United States. Humans are resilient, if nothing else, so some enterprising person or persons discovered fish eggs could be fertilized without nature being involved. Aquaculture was born. The offspring of these fish could then be raised to a stockable size and then transported by train, truck, mule or horse to depleted rivers, lakes and streams. Stocking and aquaculture allowed anglers to continue to angle without worrying about the demise of wild fish any longer. Sadly, all one had to do to catch fish was to follow a fish-stocking truck.
Brown trout from Europe, rainbow trout from California and brook trout from the Eastern states were first introduced to Wyoming waters by the early 20th century. In the century that has gone by since then, fisheries, especially native trout fisheries, have been supplanted by stocking not just with the non-native trout species, but also with cutthroat trout, once plentiful in the state. Now, brown, rainbow and brook trout are considered as native (they are not) as the four species of native cutthroat once occupied by four different cutthroat species found in the Yellowstone, Snake and Green River drainages.
Refrigeration aided the artificial migration of fish across our continent as well as facilitated the introduction on nonnative fish. Soon, other nonnative fish came to the state. Bass, crappie, bluegill, walleye and lake trout soon were being raised in fish hatcheries and stocked in ponds, reservoirs and lakes formed by water impoundment when irrigation helped farmers tame the land. All of these introductions of nonnative fish stocked around the state were cheered and encouraged by those who never were aware these fish did not belong here.
However, not all fish planted in Wyoming fisheries come from fish hatcheries. Aquaculture moved indoors when Ken and Barbie asked parents for a fishbowl or fish tank to put their goldfish, Oscars, Tetras, Guppies, Gouramis and other exotic indoor aquarium fish species. Mind you, this was not done with bad intentions. Fish became pets and fun to watch in indoor tanks and fishbowls. The problem with these fish and other pets is that not every child or adult wants to take care of them.
When it comes to pets, no one wants to give them away, or worse, kill or euthanize them because that is perceived as bad or inhumane in this day and age. In the case of fish, these indoor fish have been released in lots of lakes around the U.S. and Wyoming. Due to this perception, we now have goldfish and other aquarium fish swimming where they should be found. Locally, West and East Newton Lakes, as well as Renner Reservoir near Ten Sleep, have been used for goldfish disposal, and to give these fish the chance to swim free without ever having face harsh chemicals or neglect again.
The “freeing” of fish sounds harmless by itself. However, G&F considers the illegal stocking of these aquarium fish in the same way it views the illegal stocking of walleye in Buffalo Bill Reservoir. The activity is illegal. Better said, it is in violation of G&F regulations. If caught freeing Wilbur or whatever the pet fish is named, the fines are substantial. Eradication of these fish from these lakes is expensive and labor intensive, already stretching the man power of fishery biologists and managers.
I have been asked to write about the illegal stocking of not just aquarium fish, but all fish species that are not wanted everywhere in the state by the Chief of Fisheries and the Area Two Fisheries Supervisor. I have tried to present the problem in a friendly, makes sense kind of way. Having done my best to do such, owners of goldfish and other unwanted, nonnative fish need to be aware that someone is watching you.
Please, be environmentally aware of the consequences. Goldfish do compete with trout by eating the same foods and also by changing water quality. If you or your child or grandchild do not want the responsibility of raising your goldfish and taking care of their fishbowls or aquariums, kill these fish as humanely as you can. Do not release these fish into local lakes, rivers or streams. It is wrong, it is irresponsible and it is reprehensible.
If caught, you cannot say you have not been given fair warning. If you persist, I hope you are caught, maybe even jailed and fined the maximum amount allowed under the law.