Taking stock

The National Park Service is considering changing its fishery policies to take into account the delicate ecosystems of many rivers and lakes. In the past, the NPS saw its primary role as stocking fish for anglers. It is now considering changing the policy to protect endangered fish.
IN 1957 THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE and two other agencies poisoned 14 miles of Abrams Creek in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to clear the way for rainbow trout. Among the 58 native species of fish killed by the poisoning was the park’s population of the smoky madtom, a rare catfish then known to exist only at Great Smoky Mountains. Until 1981, when another population was found elsewhere, it looked as though the Park Service had inadvertently helped a species become extinct.


This is perhaps the most dramatic example of the fisheries management philosophy that dominated the Park Service until the last few decades. It was what Dr. Leo Marnell, aquatic ecologist at Glacier National Park, called the “Johnny Appleseed era,” when native and non-native fish were planted indiscriminately in lakes and streams throughout the park system to please anglers. “There’s always been an implicit assumption that if it couldn’t be deep-fried, it wasn’t worth anything,” Marnell says, “and our management policies reflected that.”

Fisheries management in national parks was–and still is–somewhat of an aberration; aquatic ecosystems are treated differently from their land-based counterparts. Despite the Park Service’s mandate to maintain natural ecosystems, fisheries have been routinely manipulated to the benefit of some species over others. Nongame, or “trash” fish, have been removed, native game fish populations enhanced by hatchery stockings, non-native fish brought in, and lakes that were naturally fishless stocked with species from all over the world. And perhaps more curious is the fact that fishing–the only consumptive use of park resources–is allowed at all.

Recreational angling provided the incentive for many of these early policy decisions, and the result of this, combined with lax or nonexistent fishing regulations, is that aquatic ecosystems are one of the most compromised resources within the National Park System. Although the Park Service believes it can accommodate both fish and the roughly 2.5 percent of park visitors who seek them, some observers believe that fisheries will continue to erode as long as the sport is allowed.

A document recently released by the Park Service states that “the primary goal for recreational fishing in national parks is to provide the recreational angler with a quality fishing experience while preserving the natural aquatic ecosystems.” The document, A Heritage of Fishing: The National Park Service Recreational Fisheries Program, is the Park Service’s first attempt to examine and clarify its fisheries management approach.

The document was begun shortly after NPS, along with more than 60 federal, state, and private organizations, signed the National Recreational Fisheries Policy, the purpose of which is to provide long-term common goals for managing the nation’s recreational fisheries. “Immediately after that,” says Frank M. Panek, fisheries program manager for the Park Service, “each agency began to set its own management policies. We wanted to make sure that recreational fishing is an integral part of the public’s use of parks and that it is managed to protect ecosystems.”

Although the Park Service prides itself on its ability to offer anglers an opportunity to catch wild, native fish in natural settings, fisheries biologists in many parks are struggling to bring back the natives after the early days of mismanagement. It might seem that native fish would be better adapted to their local environment and easily dominate exotic fish, but the opposite is often the case. Introduced fish pursue and devour native ones or compete with local species for food. In other cases, native species breed with related introduced fish, altering the genetic makeup of the next generation.

At Creater Lake National Park in Oregon, for example, park managers are trying to revive the native bull trout that has been pushed to the edge of extinction in the park by introduced brook trout. Eastern brook trout and hybrids have taken over Sun Creek, limiting the native bull trout to a one-mile section in the middle of the creek. Last summer, fisheries managers at the park used electroshocking and a toxicant to remove the introduced species and installed barriers above and below the one-mile section to keep brook trout from moving into the bulls’ last retreat. “We’re hoping all this will buy bull trout some time and allow them to expand their numbers,” says Mark Buktencia, aquatic biologist at the park. “If we did nothing, I’m confident we’d lose them.”

At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the brook trout is the victim, not the villain, and efforts are under way to re-establish a wild brook trout fishery within the park. By the time the park was established in 1936, sedimentation and other changes brought by intensive logging had destroyed nearly 50 percent of brook trout habitat in the Smokies. In addition, between 1936 and 1975, more than 1.5 million rainbow trout were planted in park waters. During the same period, more than 800,000 brook trout were stocked in an effort to revive the ailing native population. Local brook trout did not fare well in the hatcheries, so brood stock was imported from states to the north.

By 1977, brook trout had lost another 20 percent of their former habitat to the flourishing rainbows. Two years before, NPS had halted both brook trout angling and fish stocking and begun a long-term effort to remove all rainbow trout from six streams.

“We’ve gotten rid of all rainbow trout in two streams and are close to being done with a third,” says Stephen Moore, head of the park’s fisheries program. “I have identified 26 streams that we need to work on.” Once their nemesis is removed, the brook trout readily re-establish themselves, but removing rainbows is a slow and pains-taking process.

“It’s not realistic to expect to get rid of all rainbow trout, since we can be reinvaded from outside the park,” Moore says. “But I think the prospects for the brook trout are good.”

The removal of non-native fish to protect native species is not always the best option and must be decided on a park-by-park basis. In some cases, the non-native species is threatened in its home range. Shoshone and Lewis lakes in Yellowstone National Park, originally fishless, play host to a healthy population of lake trout, a species that has been drastically reduced in its original Lake Superior home. The best hope for reviving this trout lies in the Yellowstone lakes.

According to Panek, the Park Service no longer sanctions stocking non-native fish, but the fisheries document does not prohibit this option. And in some parks, continued stocking is actually required by the enabling legislation. Such is the case at North Cascades National Park Service Complex in Washington, where the state continues to stock naturally fishless lakes with trout. In the year 2000, the Park Service will have the opportunity to decide whether stocking should be stopped based on research it is doing now. Preliminary results indicate that fish are affecting the abundance and behavior of native salamanders.

In lakes that contain fish, salamander numbers are down, and those that remain are more secretive, spending days hidden in crevices of submerged boulders and emerging to feed only at night. In lakes still devoid of fish, salamanders are abundant and move freely during the day, floating in water or basking on submerged rocks or logs.

According to Park Service aquatic ecologist Dr. Gary Larson, the effect of fish on salamanders is reason for concern, but more research is reason for concern, but more research is needed. The early findings are significant, however, considering the mysterious decline of amphibians worldwide (see National Parks July/August 1990).

In other cases, the non-native fish becomes an integral component of the ecosystem, and its removal would hurt other species that have come to depend on it. In Glacier National Park, kokanee salmon, an introduced species, attracted a spectacular array of birds and mammals to feed each autumn when the fish were spawning. Bald eagles gathered by the hundreds in the park to feed on the kokanee, which for years were not interfered with because the eagle, a threatened species, took precedence. In the late 1980s, the kokanee population collapsed, due in part to the earlier introduction of yet another species, opossum shrimp. Released by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, the shrimp were intended to stimulate the kokanee but instead eventually affected the food chain, and this, combined with fluctuations in water level, caused the salmon’s numbers to crash. The bald eagles turned to prey elsewhere, taking with them a substantial number of visitors for whom eagle watching was a favorite autumn pastime.

As aquatic ecosystems continue to decline around the country, national parks may play an important role in the survival of non-native species. But should parks provide refuge for nonnative species threatened in their home range at the expense of native species? What is the best use of naturally fishless waters that now contain rare species of fish? These are the kinds of management conflicts the National Park Service will continue to face as it tries to reconcile the realities of management with its mission to preserve.

For the most part, however, the goal of park managers and the Park Service’s recreational fisheries program is to return aquatic ecosystems to natural conditions. Many national parks are discovering that, given increasing angler use and the Park Service’s policy of protecting native fish, catch-and-release fishing is a way of meeting both demands. According to John Varley, Yellowstone National Park chief of resources, managers at that park were becoming increasingly aware in the early 1970s that native trout were being overfished and, perhaps more important, that these fish were a key link in the food chain of the entire park. Vulnerable native species, such as cutthroat trout and grayling, are now limited to catch-and-release fishing in nearly all cases, while non-native fish are still subject to catch and kill. And the results are, as Varley puts it, astounding.

Not only have the native populations recovered, but, Varley says, “they’ve recovered to a level far beyond what was projected. We thought populations might double or triple, but some have increased tenfold.” What’s even more astounding, Varley says, are the ecological ripples created by the changes in the approach to fishing. With the resurgence of cutthroat trout has come an increase in osprey, bald eagles, grizzlies, and other predators.

But catch-and-release fishing is more than a management tool; it represents a shift in emphasis from consumptive to nonconsumptive use of fish in parks. “I think it’s fair to say that Yellowstone pioneered the concept of fishing for fun as opposed to fishing for meat,” Varley says. “That was a big change culturally to get away from the harvest of fish.”

One of the objectives of the new fisheries management program is to increase public awareness of the role of fish in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and encourage nonconsumptive activities, including fish watching. For most people, a fish is little more than the creature gasping on the end of a fishing line or featured on a menu. Few appreciate the creature’s underwater world, which is full of diversity and challenge. It is every bit as exciting as the daily drama that occurs on land. In Yellowstone, park officials have made some areas where fish congregate off-limits to fishing and have installed boardwalks, platforms, and informational signs. Now visitors can witness the drama of spawning runs and the spectacle of fish jumping rapids. Yellowstone now has more people watching fish than casting for them. “We found that when you call attention to something that’s worth seeing, you can build quite a clientele,” Varley says. “We’re very proud of that.”

Although appreciation of the aesthetic and ecological value of fish in freshwater lakes and streams appears to be slowly but steadily growing, Gary Davis does not see the same trend in marine systems. “Society has not come to grips with having protected aquatic ecosystems,” says Davis, marine biologist at Channel Islands National Park. “We’re edging toward that in freshwater ecosystems, but not in marine.”

The major difference between freshwater and marine ecosystems in parks is the presence of commercial fishing in coastal waters. “What we see in most coastal fisheries is that stocks are not being sustained over a long period of time…the commercial fishing industry will exploit a particular species until it is depleted and then move on to a different species in order to maintain yield,” Davis says.

Recreational fishing is also taking its toll on marine fisheries. According to Davis, predatory fishes are the focus of sport fishing, which disrupts the stability and diversity of the system. “The acceptance of fishing as an appropriate activity within the Park Service may have to change if we’re going to protect marine resources the way we protect other resources,” says Davis.

And that is the fundamental issue facing the management of fisheries in national parks. The harvest of all other resources–wildlife, timber, wildflowers, rocks–is prohibited. The killing and taking of fish is the only consumptive use of park resources allowed by NPS–unless hunting is specifically authorized by Congress for a park unit. And this naturally raises the question: Why is fishing allowed in national parks if hunting is not?

An answer to that question is conspicuously absent from the Park Service’s fisheries management document; yet, it is an issue that has been debated as early as the 1920s. In 1967, authors of the influential book Man and Nature in the National Parks wrote: “…the privilege of fishing in the national parks is one that needs radical reconsideration. The privilege was given without question at the beginning of national park history…but once again we are up against what was once a perfectly sensible decision being carried forward into a period and circumstances entirely different… .”

Tradition, in fact, is the answer most park managers give when asked why fishing is allowed in the parks. But exterminating coyotes and feeding garbage to grizzlies were once traditions as well. Management of the parks continues to evolve as activities lose or gain favor with the public.

A growing number of people question the practice of fishing in the parks. Their argument is simple–the harvest of fish by angling is fundamentally at odds with the mandate of the Park Service to maintain natural ecosystems in an “unimpaired” condition.

In the January 1990 “Viewpoint” in BioScience, Timothy R. McClanahan of the Center for Wetlands at the University of Florida wrote: “…preservation will be difficult with the parks’ many external influences but will be impossible if internal management allows recreation and resource use to supersede preservation. The subjectivity of the fishing-hunting dichotomy must be relinquished to a more objective management plan that preserves aquatic in the same manner as terrestrial species and ecosystems.”

In addition to the profound impact on aquatic species, opponents and supporters alike point to the other consequences of recreational fishing–streambank erosion, pollution, interference with other animals that feed on fish, such as birds and bears. But as always in national parks, which were established with the conflicting goals to use and preserve, compromise is the name of the game. And many people feel that the impact on natural resources is worth the opportunity to involve park visitors in the natural surroundings.

“A fisherman who gets out in the stream and pays attention to what insects are hatching so he knows what to use [is] really tuned in to the landscape,” says Paul Schullery of Yellowstone. “Fishermen are real supporters of a lot of programs in the park. They’re also terrific watchdogs for changes in the environment. I like to think that a lot of Park Service people appreciate knowing that there are watchdogs around.”

One thing is clear in the remarkably complex issue of fisheries management in parks: fishing in national parks is going to continue for the time being, as will the debate over its appropriateness. At the very least, the Park Service must respond to critics with an enlightened rationale for treating fish differently than other wildlife. But more important, NPS must ensure that its stated priority of resource protection over angling is enforced without exception.

“Can you have fishing and pristine conditions? That’s what we’re testing in Yellowstone,” Varley says. “Twenty years ago, I would have said probably not. Now, I’m looking at a new kind of fisheries management. It just might be compatible.”

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