Sunday, January 13, 2013

An Entirely Synthetic Fish by Author and WILD READ Moderator Anders Halverson

Thanks all for joining this discussion. I’m looking forward to your insights.

I’ll start by giving some background on how I came to write An Entirely Synthetic Fish. About ten years ago, I was working on a Ph.D. in which I used molecular tools like DNA fingerprinting to study ecology, evolution, and conservation. More specifically, I was working with amphibians, mostly wood frogs, addressing questions about inbreeding, kin selection, and microevolution.

I continue to find this field quite fascinating. Nevertheless, there’s nothing like an unfinished dissertation or the thought of all the samples in the lab that still need to be processed to smack you awake in the middle of the night and set you to thinking. And among other things, my late night thoughts focused on the purpose of my labors. So many of the most important debates in society are framed in terms of science. And yet, too often, advocates on all sides seem to use science not to illuminate or question, but rather to justify. Positions are based on value systems that usually remain hidden from scrutiny or discussion, and the resultant debates are therefore fruitless.

The upshot: I decided to leave the lab when I finished my dissertation and examine the issues from a different perspective. I obtained funding from the National Science Foundation to research and write a historical and journalistic narrative that is nominally about rainbow trout but is really, I like to think, about the way we have related to the natural world over the last 150 years.

Fish on Creatine
A group at the University of Missouri is
studying the  effects of the body-
building supplement creatine on
rainbow trout. Photo by Steve Morse
But why rainbow trout? They're frequently the subject of high-profile debates about aquatic ecosystems, for one thing. More importantly, though, I grew up in Colorado and spent many of my happiest hours trying to catch them. For me, as for most anglers, fishing was a way to escape civilization and technology and get back to the natural world. At some point in my late teens, though,  I stopped. I didn’t really think about why, or even notice that I had quit. I just ceased to pick up my rod. It wasn’t until years later (probably late at night) that I began to question it. And it occurred to me that there is a fundamental paradox inherent in recreational fishing, especially in freshwater. Because while it may seem like an escape, fishing is in many ways a product of technology and the industrialized world.

State and federal agencies currently stock more than 40 million pounds of fish in the freshwaters of the United States, almost half of which are catchable sized rainbow trout (more). And often even the fish that didn’t come straight from the hatchery are nonnatives introduced by fisheries managers and zealous anglers many years ago. Rainbows have been introduced to every state in the country and every continent but Antarctica (more). Two out of every three fish swimming in Colorado are nonnative. And I haven’t even mentioned genetic and chromosomal engineering and other ongoing experiments like the one pictured on the right (more).

A Worldwide Fish
Originally native to a narrow band around the Pacific from
Mexico to Kamchatka, rainbow trout can now be found
all over the world (countries in dark gray).
Let’s just say that a stocked rainbow on the end of a fly line is the embodiment of a pretty serious contradiction, at least in my mind. And while it was initially enough of a turnoff to make me quit the sport, it later became a fascinating conundrum that demanded further research.

Of course fish introductions and stocking programs have had some serious consequences for native fauna and ecosystems. Amphibians and freshwater fishes rank #1 and #2 as the most seriously threatened vertebrates in the world. And much of the blame can be laid on the introduction of nonnative fishes. But I’d like to hold off on that for future discussions.

Here I hope to initiate a discussion on the role that science plays in debate and policymaking in conservation and natural resource management. How should it be used? How is it used in fact? I’d very much value your insights in the comments, since if you’re reading this blog you are probably interested or perhaps professionally involved in these fields.

Of course if you've already read the book and have some questions or topics you'd like to discuss or have me discuss in a future post, please mention them. 

Finally, if you are interested in learning more about the book, seeing some cool old photos from the early days of fisheries management, or more photos and figures like those inserted here, please visit


Betty said...

Your book is so much more than just a story about the rainbow trout. You raise excellent points about the choices we make and the way we interpret what we see. My father was a fisherman, and I always thought the rainbow trout was just a part of the natural ecosystem. I had no idea how much effort and resources went into transplanting this fish nationally --- and how many problems that kind of transplantation could cause.
Thank you telling this story.

Joy said...

Halverson's An Entirely Synthetic Fish offers an entirely different sort of past time. I'm pleased to report I find it interesting. With tongue in cheek I could say it's because speckled trout is one of my favorite fish to eat but that, of course, has nothing to do with it.

It seems I'm easily 'hooked' by any author with a flair for details - especially those that are unusual, unexpected and seem to have little to do with the main topic. So I'm enjoying his take on the bigger picture as he weaves together the story of rainbow trout. Look forward to AH's presentation at NCTC and hope his lecture will be as interesting.

Anders said...

Thanks Betty and Joy. Glad you are enjoying it.

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