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Saving Endangered Fishes

(In a hurry to save your stream? Go here).

      The number of endangered fishes in the United States continues to grow at a frightening rate. From the time of the first Anglo-European settlement in the New World, one-fourth of all fish species have become imperiled or gone extinct. The same holds true for one-half of freshwater mussel species, one-third of native crayfish, and one-fourth of all amphibian species.

      In many cases their numbers have been driven below critical levels by over-fishing. This has occurred to the Atlantic cod of the North Atlantic, the salmon of the Pacific Northwest, and to many species in estuaries near cities, such as rockfish and lingcod. Traditionally, fish populations were believed to be almost fantastically resilient. In the beginning, there were so many fish that people had trouble believing they could ever make a dent in their populations. A good example of this was the Pacific salmon, which at one time provided an abundance of cheap and tasty protein to residents of the West Coast. There are tales of salmon as big as a man, and so many swimming at once in a stream that a person could walk across their backs to the other bank. Atlantic cod, too, provided livings for fishing families in America for over two hundred years.

Fish Populations

     This idea of resilient populations was in many ways made worse by population research techniques which mathematically indicated that the harder a population was fished, the more fishes the system would produce. There were several problems with this. First, the harder a population is fished, the smaller the individuals become. This means fishermen must catch more of them, wiping out any advantage of greater numbers.

     Second, there is a critical level below which the population must not fall, else it will likely be doomed to extinction. Over-fishing, to succeed, depends on total cooperation from commercial interests as well as intimate knowledge of population numbers by scientists. We have learned, tragically, that only rarely will commercial interests cooperate with management measures. Basically, the race is on to scoop up as many fishes as possible in the shortest period of time. Worse, we've learned that our best scientific techniques will not allow us to accurately project populations, or even to accurately determine a current population. Over-fishing is not the great idea it used to be--and without the ability to determine current populations, it has become impossible to draw the line between sustainable fishing and over-fishing.

     Finally, even when the line between over-fishing and sustainable fishing is accurately drawn, the whole concept falls apart in the face of catastrophic events. When drought strikes, or a chemical spill, or unseasonable weather, or a failure of a food source, or a disease, fishes need the extra numbers in order to buffer the loss to their populations. Without the extra numbers, populations sink below the critical levels. In short, there was a reason for the abundance of animals in a healthy, undamaged environment. Without enough animals, populations can go extinct during even the most minor of the periodic crises that nature provides.

Destroying our Streams

     Many other fishes are endangered not from over-fishing but from pollution, dams, and lack of water. As more people occupy the land, runoff of water into streams increases because of increased hard surfaces, like roofs, parking lots, and roads. Instead of soaking through the natural filter of the ground to enter aquifers, rainwater runs directly into streams, carrying all of the peoples' pesticides, herbicides, petroleum products, heavy metals, and other pollutants of civilization with it. Most streams are also used as dumps for treated effluent, water which has been used by people and treated in plants before being released. Unfortunately, treatment levels are minimal, leaving nearly all pollutants that enter a sink or toilet to enter the streams. Increasingly, high levels of anti-depressants such as Prozac are being found in streams, and mercury and other pollutants are building up in the bodies of fishes, making them dangerous to eat.

     Dams endanger fishes that migrate upstream in order to breed, leaving their offspring to float back down the river. Dams are an insurmountable obstacle to them. In only one case--steelhead--has human intervention succeeded in mitigating the effects of dams. Salmonids, such as salmon and trout, depend on being able to swim upstream to breed so that their offspring can swim downstream as they grow. So do pelagic spawners, those fish that breed up in the water column so that their eggs can float downstream. The Rio Grande has been so extensively dammed that of its pelagic spawners only the Rio Grande silvery minnow survives--and it is now extremely endangered.

     Lack of water in the United States was nearly unthinkable only fifty years ago. Now, however, climates are changing. Nearly all of us have come to admit that the earth is warming up. Chronic drought has stricken the Western states. What has made this a catastrophe, however, is the sheer number of people who have moved to the West to live. Los Angeles, which never had enough water even as a large town, has become a sprawling megatropolis. Baking desert areas like Phoenix are now filled with inhabitants who want not only enough water to live, but enough to water their lawns, fill swimming pools, water golf courses, fill fountains, raise exotic gardens, and even irrigate vast agricultural plantations. Scientists are now forecasting a complete loss of water sources for large southwestern cities like these within our lifetimes.

     The water all these people use must come from two sources: aquifers and streams. Unfortunately, the two are inseparably bound together. As aquifers are drawn down, streams begin to dry up. This has already reached catastrophic proportions in southern California and the Southwest, which now acquire most of their water from rivers in other states. Because of global warming, those rivers are now reaching low levels and even drying up in places, while reservoirs are only half-full. Recently we have seen that even regions like the State of Georgia that we think of as wet lowlands are suffering from drought. As you will be able to see by clicking on the button below, the first casualties will always be streams and the animals who live in them. (You will see a button that will bring you back to this page).


     Over-fishing, pollution, dams, and lack of water are not the only threats to endangered fishes, however. Another is competition from other fishes for the same resources. In a healthy, diverse ecosystem, creatures consume only certain portions of it. Every species is a specialist, using its own special habitat and eating only one special kind of food. This way, even though the system is filled with animals, no species suffers from want.

     Humans have irrevocably altered this balance in two ways. They have introduced new species, often from fishermen releasing unused bait and often from government agencies trying to provide sport fish that fishermen want to see in their lakes and streams. These are all invasive species.


     Hatcheries are a hallowed tradition in the United States. They were at one time considered a brilliant solution to the dietary needs of a burgeoning population of Americans. In this system, it didn't matter how many fish were removed from the ecosystem, because they could be replaced by fishes raised in hatcheries. Today, most hatcheries are concerned solely with breeding endangered fishes, trying to support failing populations and rescue them from extinction.

     Hatcheries are such a popular solution today because they ask nothing from us but more taxes on the general public. Where hatcheries are used, commercial interests don't have to curb urban development, spend money on more expensive construction techniques or mitigation, buy new equipment, decrease fishing, or change methods. Among politicians, hatcheries have become the final solution to the impending extinction of fishes all across America.

     Most biologists now know that hatcheries have been a colossal failure. Rather than supporting populations and rescuing species, hatcheries have assisted in driving them even farther toward extinction.

     Fish hatcheries inevitably cause several problems.

     This has all been a well-kept secret for several reasons. Commercial interests fear they will find their plans for the future hampered. Politicians are being heavily lobbied by everyone but the fish. And government agencies charged with protecting fishes are only too painfully aware that they have no alternatives left to them.

     Environmental laws are in place to deal with many of the problems of endangered species. However, these laws are easily circumvented with the use of measures that have given false hope, like mitigation and hatcheries. And they are circumvented wherever politicians decide that the endangered species are "threatening" human survival. This is not to say that the humans are endangered, but that their continued ability to build new housing developments and roads, or enjoy continued abundance of sport-fishing opportunities and fresh water in desert areas is threatened.

     A case from 2003 should help illustrate this point. Mayor Marty Chavez of Albuquerque, New Mexico, fought to deny water to the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. The fish was threatening to restrict the city's "development" (the building of new houses and businesses). To rally the public behind him, he spoke loudly about the silvery minnow "taking water from our childrens' mouths." This was, of course, absurd: the minnow only needed a little bit of water left in the Rio Grande in summer. The river was running dry because Albuquerque was feverishly expanding its population and the city's many new residents watered lush, green lawns throughout every drought. But the technique of spreading fear and anger, a popular one among developers, worked. The fate of the Rio Grande silvery minnow, a fish that became thoroughly hated in New Mexico as a public enemy, would rest on an aquarium--and hatchery techniques. The citizens were satisfied, believing that they have done more than enough for the silvery minnow.

In the summer of 2003, the final federal court decision was announced: Albuquerque would have to release its water. As a result, Mayor Chavez, Governor Richardson, and Senator Domenici--New Mexican politicians--flew off to Washington, D.C. to attempt to get the Endangered Species Act changed. This didn't happen, but Chavez did get approval to consider the minnows in the hatchery to be wild fish; therefore, the Rio Grande could run dry. In their effort to protect their ability to further develop Albuquerque, they've made popular a trendy new argument among conservatives and their lobbyists--that hatchery fish should be counted in with wild fish. Every fisheries biologist knows this to be a critical error.

      To learn more about how hatcheries destroy genetic diversity, visit Diversity.

Mitigation: Trying to Replace What's Gone

     Mitigation, mentioned above, is a popular strategy for managing endangered fish populations. Mitigation is the process of trying to replace something that has been lost. When a commercial interest plans to destroy an environment, for example to drain a marsh, build a dam, or build close enough to a water body that its health will be endangered, environmental protection agencies are called in to evaluate the situation and use federal and state law to assist endangered species. Mitigation has been presented in these laws as a viable solution to any kind of development. Therefore, in only rare cases is a commercial interest required to modify its plans in any way, and almost never to cancel them. Instead, it spends money on mitigation. For example, a company may drain and pave over a marsh that served as habitat for endangered species and a resting stop for migrating birds, and replace it with an artificial pond ten miles away. In reality, even when such effort and expense is made that the new artificial environment looks just like the old to an inexperienced eye, it is nevertheless a sterile, lifeless environment that will be incapable of supporting the wildlife of the environment that it replaces for many decades or even centuries.

      Mitigation as a concept was written into environmental laws in an effort to provide flexibility in cases where human interests simply had to prevail. Thus, even in worst-case scenarios, the environment might find some small benefit. It was a good idea at the time. But mitigation has since become a cheap, convenient way for companies to buy their way out of having to consider protected species as they proceed with their construction and operations. In essence, "human interests that must prevail" has come to mean anything from which humans might profit.

Laws Under Attack

      Another technique that commercial interests have become adept in using is repeated attempts to de-list, downlist, or prevent listing of certain fish species. A word of explanation is necessary here. For a species to be protected under federal and state environmental laws, it must be formally "listed" as a protected species. It typically enters a list under categories such as "endangered," "threatened," or "species of concern." If a company can force a species further down on the list in priority, or prevent its move upward in the list, it can avoid complying with laws meant to protect that species. Companies (and cities) typically hire teams of biologists whose mission is to try to disprove what government biologists say as they try to uphold environmental laws. Besides attempts to change listing status, companies also use these biologists to attempt to prove that protected species won't be harmed by their activities. This strategy is questionable at best. In hiring scientists to say what they want them to say, companies ensure the breakdown of correct, objective scientific procedure.

      In short, American environmental laws have failed us. Originally well-written with the best of intentions, they have become little more than a weak structure full of loopholes under constant attack from whole bodies of lawyers and politicians who are trying to support commercial interests. Biologists in government agencies are better educated than ever and have the best interests of endangered species at heart, but their hands have been tied by the prevailing public climate.

      The past few years have seen the Republican Party attempt to do away with both the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, signed (in 1972 and 1973 respectively) by President Richard M. Nixon--a Republican!

What We Can Do

     Even when our laws fail to protect our streams, there are things we can do. If we educate ourselves, we can make sure our own actions don't damage streams further. We can put pressure on politicians by writing and calling them, and voting only for the ones who show a commitment to saving our streams. We can refuse to support destructive commercial practices with our money. We can join one of the "Adopt-A-Stream" groups that are present in most states. We can join efforts to clean up trash and plant riparian vegetation. We can volunteer to monitor streams and other water bodies, providing local environmental agencies with the data they need to do their jobs. We can become familiar with the government agencies trying to protect our resources, and offer them our help and support. And we can attempt to prevent further destruction of our environment, an irreplaceable resource.

Get your feet wet! Go here if you're interested in monitoring streams, stream clean-ups, or learning about your own watershed.

Contact your elected government representatives. Click here to call or write to your President, your Senators, or your Representatives.

Join an effective online stream advocacy group. Find them here.

Learn about the endangered fishes in your area: There are so many endangered and threatened fishes in the world today that there is no one link that handles them all. To make things more complicated, in the U. S. there is a federal list as well as separate lists for each state. The best approach is to use a search engine like Google, type "endangered species" and then the name of the state, region, or river in which you have an interest. For example, endangered species colorado river.

If you are interested in the laws affecting your stream, check out the Animal Legal & Historical Center (Detroit College of Law). Professor David Favre has compiled an enormous law library focusing on animals, including environmental protection.

See how the ecological effects of dams affect our ability to save endangered fishes.

To learn more about stream ecology, check out the reading list, where you will find some excellent references listed. (You will be able to order them from here, too).

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If you have comments or suggestions, email me at chaya7@ix.netcom.com

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