I’ve started to notice the annual posts on social media by our state fisheries agency promoting the fleet of white trucks that will soon start rolling to deliver truckloads of “fishing fun” to waterways all over the Commonwealth. For as long as I can remember, the ritual of trucking fish raised in concrete troughs all over the state has been a harbinger of spring. It’s as reliable as the news stations running footage of fancifully dressed dignitaries hoisting a confused marmot from its pen to decide whether we’re in for an early spring or several more weeks of cold.
In the early 1800s our forefathers wreaked havoc on our mountainsides in their pursuit of westward expansion, denuding the hillsides of their forest cover. The barren hillsides unable to restrain the rainfall would cause massive mudslides into the valley streams below. The streams were manipulated to facilitate the floating of logs downriver to sawmills set up on the banks in strategic locations all over Pennsylvania.
Our need for clothing and flour required the construction of mills that typically derived their power from waterwheels which required additional damming of streams. The dams caused silt to build up behind the dams and forever altered the streamscape above and below. Our native potamodromous fish like the brook trout were then unable to reach winter habitat downriver, or spawning grounds upstream in the fall.
In addition to the manipulation of waterways in pursuit of expansion and settling the new world, we also required an increasing harvest of native fish to feed the ever-growing population. In the early 1800’s, there was no agency in charge of protecting our nation’s waters or the fish that inhabited them. Modern conservation wouldn’t be founded until near the turn of the century when Gifford Pinchot would coin the term and head the US Forest Service. Pinchot would go on to serve as Pennsylvania’s head of the forestry division and ultimately the governor of Pennsylvania.
The eradication of many populations of native fish due to habitat loss and over-harvest for consumption led to the need for action. The Pennsylvania Fish Commission was formed in 1866 with an original mission of restoring native shad migrations in the Susquehanna River. By 1868 legislation was passed that prevented the use of seine nets within 200 yards of fish passage devices constructed on dams on the river. By 1873 the commission raised and stocked millions of shad in the Susquehanna and thousands of bass were taken from the Deleware river and moved all over Pennsylvania.
In 1875 the state appropriated roughly $5,000 to purchase land and construct a fish hatchery in Corry Pennsylvania. In 1879 the federal government bequeathed 12,000 common carp from Europe to 25 individual states including Pennsylvania. The common carp is #30 on the IUCN list of the top 100 most invasive species worldwide. http://www.iucngisd.org/gisd/100_worst.php
In 1886 the first brown trout eggs were received from Germany and hatched at the Corry hatchery. Brown trout are #82 on the IUCN list of the top 100 most invasive species. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the state’s fish hatchery system would expand its infrastructure and the species it produced. Fish were transported by railcars all over the state to be distributed in flowing rivers and still water lakes.
The period between the late 1800s and early 1900s also saw the country’s first “Long Depression” which forced many residents into the field to harvest fish and game for survival. Subsistence fishing put added pressure on already strained natural resources. By 1915 the state conveyed the power of arrest on the Pennsylvania Fish Commission’s wardens. In 1922 the state issued its first resident fishing license.
In the late 1920s to the late 1930s, the country would face a bigger depression which would force even more citizens into the wild to find food. The state’s fish hatchery system in 1932 would produce over 1 million legal-sized trout to help feed a starving public. Ironically, rather than simply supply the fish to residents, it was deemed more appropriate to spend significant resources to transport the fish from hatcheries and then disperse them into the wild. The demand on our natural resources far outweighed nature’s ability to keep up with this increased pressure on its own.
The turn of the century altered America’s views on the natural world. Conservation efforts by the federal government by setting aside public lands to protect them from the ravages of industrialization and regulations to protect the wildlife itself would begin to shape the nation’s views on the harvest of wildlife.
I think it’s important to think about generations and how each one viewed the activity of fishing specifically. We tend to view our past with rose-colored glasses and romanticize the ways of old. For a child growing up in the 1930s whose mom or dad would have likely fished to provide food for the family, the time would’ve surely been impressionable.
The 30s, 40s, and 50s would see a renaissance of sorts with regard to hunting and fishing. Outdoor recreation-related publications like Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, and Sportfishing illustrated romantic images of rugged men engaged in awe-inspiring scenarios in the great outdoors. Covers of magazines depicting happy anglers hoisting record-setting fish from the water surely helped maintain our nation’s interest in outdoor recreation.
A recent journal publication in Conservation Science and Practice from November 2021 focused on state fish and wildlife agencies’ ability to adapt to change, mentions modern trends in America’s wildlife values. The paper draws a portion of the background section on a survey from 2004 called “wildlife Values in the West” and a 2018 “America’s Wildlife Values” survey. The surveys identified two primary value orientations toward wildlife: traditionalist (or domination) wildlife values are related to the subordination of wildlife to human interests and the use of wildlife for economic benefit, while mutualist wildlife values see wildlife as part of the social community that are worthy of rights and protections.
Recent trends seem to indicate that America is transitioning from a mostly Traditionalist value set to a more Mutualist view on wildlife. This trend likely plays a significant role in the reduced interest in hunting and fishing and subsequently, the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. In the days before cell phones, tablets, computers, and television, outdoor recreation was one of the few ways for Americans to entertain themselves. Now outdoor recreation has to compete with a myriad of distractions all vying for our undivided attention in order to get eyes on screens to sell advertising. Ironically, this trend was started by the same outdoor recreation publications that once likely caused many Americans to venture into the outdoors.
This trend is cause for great concern amongst fisheries managers who rely almost exclusively on license sales, permits, and fines to support their mission. Their “mission” today seems to largely revolve around raising fish to stock in waters to provide an artificially inflated resource, in order to sell more licenses, in order to raise more fish, in order to sell more licenses, in order to…
Today’s hatchery systems are far more advanced than that hatchery in Corry Pennsylvania was in 1875. The costs associated with fish production continue to escalate, while the demographic interested in buying fishing licenses continues to decline. There is a natural supply/demand economic force at play which limits the amount of money an agency can charge for a fishing license, while the cost of production continues to rise.
Much like the market manipulation and economic forces that caused the stock market collapses early in our nation’s history, fisheries management is not immune from disturbances to current fisheries management models. Most state agencies are structured more like private enterprises where they need to move a product to market efficiently in order to remain solvent.
While there may be temporary changes in the public’s interest and use of wildlife due to things like global pandemics and the emergence of online social media focused on hunting and fishing, the overall trendline seems to indicate a steady decline in outdoor recreation. How will state and federal agencies adjust to this new future? The system we’ve created for cultivating fish, stocking them in almost every state in the country, and then promoting the process in order to sell licenses to further perpetuate the process, seems destined to fail one way or another.
One of the biggest issues with the system we’ve built is that the actions of our past have had a lasting impact on the natural resources themselves. All over the country native salmonids are pushed further and further to the brink of extinction due to environmental and biotic factors which we’ve either inadvertently, or purposefully created. A typical list of threats to wild native trout typically involves climate change, habitat loss, and nonnative & invasive species.
The first two items on the list (climate change & habitat loss) we typically chalk up to the cost of development and human progress. The last item on the list (nonnative & invasive species) is solidly our fault due to wreckless and ill-informed decisions of fisheries managers dating back to before the turn of the century. What is astounding to me is that we’re still making a lot of these same mistakes today.
I think when we frame the decisions made in the past against the backdrop of widespread deforestation and industrial pollution coupled with a hungry population struggling in difficult economic times, it’s almost easy to forgive those early decisions. At the time, we didn’t understand what introducing nonnative fish from all over the world or country would mean in the future. I’m sure when these decisions were made, the priority was stabilizing the economy and the country. When they looked at the destruction from our industrial expansion, it was probably difficult to envision the damage ever being undone.
Today, however, state, federal, regional, and non-profit organizations are spending significant financial and human resources on correcting the environmental damage caused by our industrious past. Trees have regrown. Dams are coming down. Fish passage systems are being built. Habitat and water quality are being improved on a daily basis, and we’ve come a long way from when the first dams were built on the Susquehanna forever altering the species composition upstream of Harrisburg.
Why then, do the vast majority of the state fisheries agencies still conduct business like it’s 1922? We know better today, yet the machine we’ve built needs its fuel in the form of yearly infusions of cash from good law-abiding citizens buying their yearly fishing licenses. It’s hard to view the bulk of the activities conducted by state and federal fisheries agencies today as anything more than the continuance of a system for the sake of the system.
So as the dawn breaks on another spring in Pennsylvania, I can’t help but feel a bit like Bill Murray in the 1993 film Groundhog Day. I feel like I’ve lived through this same set of events on repeat, and I’m not sure there’s a break in the cycle in the foreseeable future. This spring, the white trucks will roll, social media will be filled with countless smiles from young anglers enjoying their first spring trout fishing experience, and the wild native fish will continue to dwindle in range and numbers.