Book review: "An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World" by Anders Halverson

Sunday, February 28, 2010


How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World

By Anders Halverson

Yale Univ. 257 pp. $26

Who doesn't love the rainbow trout?

Whether sauced in butter, sketched in pastel or stripping line from a flyrod in a Montana stream, the game little fish with the freckled skin and the rosy side-stripes has always been a poster child for Unspoiled America. Presidents from Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover to Jimmy Carter have angled for it with something akin to reverence. Citizen conservationists and family campers have followed suit.

But history, as we know but seldom remember, is often about unintended consequences, and few better examples can be cited than the story told in "An Entirely Synthetic Fish," Anders Halverson's chronicle of how our best-intentioned efforts to widen and democratize the sport of trout fishing compromised mountain streams and lakes in often subtle but disturbing ways. Also compromised has been the fish population, including the rainbow itself. It's been so hatchery-tweaked and interbred over the years that even DNA detectives puzzle over its exact genetic makeup. Indeed, the original species of native American rainbow trout may now be extinct.

Yet this is not one of those whiny, hand-wringing catalogs of environmental gloom and doom. With prose as engaging as it is thoughtful, Halverson has crafted an absorbing cautionary tale of ecological trial and error, documenting our tardy but increasing understanding of biological interdependence and its immeasurable value.

Halverson points out that, in their campaign to increase biological diversity by stocking the nation's streams with rainbows over the past century, state and federal fish commissions unwittingly reduced diversity. Hatchery-bred fish have proved rapacious predators that gobble up frogs and native fish, some species of which have been pushed to endangerment. Even songbird and bat populations have suffered near mountain lakes where non-native rainbows consumed mayflies and other insects on which avian populations feed.

Halverson is particularly astute in reminding us how nature sports -- fishing included -- were once thought to nourish the cultural sinews of American democracy. Political efforts born of that concept eventually gave rise to hatchery trucks equipped with sirens to alert anglers waiting along a given streambed as to when the latest load of rainbows was about to be dumped in -- to be hauled out "for sport" moments later. But he's even more informative when he details the lessons in intellectual humility that scientists and bureaucrats have learned over more than a century of struggling with rainbow trout. Once again, the evidence shows, it's a dodgy prospect fooling with Mother Nature.

-- Ken Ringle

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