Maine’s Wild Brook Trout Face the Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons is playing out in Maine’s fabled brook trout waters. Today’s Kennebec Journal has the details (Hat Tip Moldy Chum):

More and more, big, voracious predator fish such as pike and bass have been introduced illegally in forested, cold mountain streams that flow through idyllic trout habitat. And state agencies find it nearly impossible to stop it.

If the rate of those illegal introductions continues, the number of wild brook trout waters in Maine will decline, biologists say. And if nothing is done, Maine one day could lose its distinction as a trout-fishing destination.

This illegal introduction of fish species is occurring throughout the United States: someone, usually an angler to be fair, one day decides to tote a bucket or pale or plastic bag full of his or her favorite game fish and deposit said fish into a favored fishing locale. These so-called “bucket biologists” do this because they prefer to angle for one certain species of fish over the species that may already be present in the pond or lake or stream. The act, though illegal, is happening with some frequency. Of course, fish and game agencies have a long history of introducing non-native fish into waters. The small mouth bass is a prime example. Neither the rainbow nor brown trout are native fish species, but are present in trout waters throughout the United States.

In many places, the introduction of a fish species is not a big deal because most of the water bodies being stocked are already disturbed systems. The addition of game fish is usually intentional, and when done by a bucket biologist, is generally harmless. Generally, but not always, because native fisheries still exist in the United States, and when someone introduces a non-native fish to these systems, the outcome is usually devastating for the native species and, indeed, can wreak havoc on the entire local ecosystem. This is the issue in Maine, where illegally introduced non-native species like largemouth bass and voracious northern pike may end up decimating the brook trout population.

But let me turn your attention to a part of this story that caught my eye. Read the way a Maine fisheries biologist describes the problem in this passage:

Since the glaciers retreated, our coldwater fisheries have had little competition from warm-water fish,” said Francis Brautigam, the regional biologist in Gray, “but the unique places are at risk now. The way it’s going, we’re going to end up with a situation where a lot of fishing opportunities around Maine are not that unique.

The entire story in the Kennebec Journal describes the problem in terms of amenity resources, such as (paraphrasing here): we’ll end up with fishing opportunities that are not unique; Maine could lose its distinction as a trout-fishing destination; brook trout are the number one fish species sought by anglers visiting Maine; we will become Connecticut – we will end up with a homogenous landscape.

Look, I’m a student of outdoor recreation theory; I understand the study and value of amenity resources and place-based management. (I also understand that this is a news article and may not fully present the concerns of the Maine fisheries scientists and policy wonks studying the brook trout issue.) There’s legitimacy to the argument that brook trout are important symbols of the Maine landscape and need to be protected for this reason. Brook trout have value to people because of tourism, because of economics, because of a way of life and an impression of what the Maine woods and wild waters should be like.

But I also know that these are value judgments, and like this Reason piece argues, everyone values things differently, as is evident by some who value northern pike over native brook trout. If all we have to offer is value judgments; well, everyone is entitled to his or her view of right and wrong.

But what the Reason article fails to analyze, and what this Kennebec Journal story fails to assess, is the ecological costs of tinkering with this ecosystem. Look, brook trout evolved within certain systems for specific biological and ecological reasons. These systems in term developed over millenia, and every part of that system plays a critical role or it would not exist:

If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering

That’s a quote by Aldo Leopold, and it couldn’t be more apt. We love the biota – the brook trout – but we do not truly understand it. Are we at risk of discarding a useless part that may bring down the entirety of the whole? If we are to make value judgments, then let us include these critical components of the argument, issues of biodiversity and ecosystem integrity, issues of natural rights and inter-generational obligations. Clearly, there is more at stake than just our desire – my desire – to fish for native brook trout in Maine’s world class waters.

to be continued

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