With the U.S. Senate's inaction on a measure that would direct the National Park Service to allow stocking of non-native fish in North Cascades National Park, that practice has come to an end. But park biologists are working with Washington state fisheries experts to improve fishing opportunities elsewhere in the park.
"We appreciate that people want to have fishing opportunities, and what we think we ought to be really focusing on with angling groups, with the state, with other parties, with the tribes, is the full recovery of the native populations," says North Cascades Superintendent Chip Jenkins. "That we should be putting this energy into the recovery of salmon populations and bull trout populations and the cutthroat trout populations and the other species so that we can develop robust fisheries that people can enjoy for generations to come.’
Folks long have been lugging non-native trout up into the park's high country to stock lakes that, under normal conditions, couldn't sustain wild fisheries because there are not enough nutrients. The stocking expeditions began late in the 19th century and have been handed down, father to son, father to son (and daughter no doubt), although in recent years the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife has handled the chore.
Late last year the National Park Service approved an environmental impact statement that said park managers on July 1 would ban fish stocking in as many as 42 high-country lakes unless Congress intervened and directed the stocking to continue. While the House of Representatives did pass a measure with such a directive, the Senate didn't consider the matter. As a result, the stocking of non-native fish is now banned in the park.
“Our focus is to follow the direction that Congress has given to us to focus on maintaining and restoring natural ecosystems,” the superintendent said Thursday. "As part of that, our focus in terms of fisheries, or fishing opportunities for anglers, is on fishing for native fish in native habitats.”
Even though the preferred alternative in the park's EIS on fisheries management was to continue the stocking operations if Congress authorized them, park officials never really liked the practice because it conflicted with their mission for managing natural resources. Here's a few graphs from that EIS:
NPS Management Policies 2006 prohibit fish stocking in waters that are naturally fishless (Section 4.4.3, Harvest of Plants and Animals by the Public). NPS Servicewide Management Policies 2006 require all management decisions affecting wilderness resources to be consistent with the “Minimum Requirement” concept. This concept, derived from Section 4(c) if the Wilderness Act of 1964 and clarified by NPS Policies 2006 (6.3.5 Minimum Requirement), is a documented process used to determine if management actions may affect wilderness character. When determining Minimum Requirement for wilderness administration, the potential disruption of wilderness character and resources must be considered. Only those actions that preserve wilderness character and/or have localized, short-term adverse impacts will be acceptable.
The Stephen Mather Wilderness, a federally designated wilderness area within the North Cascades Complex, encompasses all of the naturally fishless lakes that would potentially be stocked in accordance with the Selected Action. The NPS has determined, in accordance with Minimum Requirement provision under Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act of 1964, that fish stocking does not meet the minimum requirement and is unacceptable because the practice would result in long-term, adverse impacts on various natural resources, including aquatic organisms associated with naturally fishless lakes (FEIS, Chapter IV).
The wilderness resources and character of North Cascades are fundamental to the purposes and values for which North Cascades was established. The NPS cannot authorize an activity, in this instance fish stocking, that would derogate the values and purposes for which North Cascades was established, except as may have been or shall be directly and specifically provided by Congress. (16 USC 1a-1).
There have been some ardent supporters of the fish-stocking program, and it's impossible to say how they'll react to the ban. At the park, however, officials are looking forward to working with Washington state fisheries biologists to bolster fishing opportunities elsewhere in North Cascades.
"The Washington Fish and Wildlife (department) actually sees that there are higher priority fisheries that we should be worrying about, like the trout fishery in Ross Lake and Diablo Lake and the salmon on the Skagit River and the trout population in the Stehekin River," Superintendent Jenkins said. "And, realistically, people will still be able to fish in some of the high mountain lakes just simply because those lakes are so large and they have reproducing populations of fish. The methods to remove them don’t currently exist.”
While Congress didn't support the non-native stocking, that doesn't mean North Cascades crews are going to head up to the high country to remove all those fish. It wouldn't be realistic, according to the superintendent.
“There is a small group of people who are very passionate about this, and they got the impression that starting today on July 2 we were going to be out there using poisons to remove fish from all of the lakes. And that’s not happening," he said. "The principal action that we’re taking at this stage in the game is we’re doing nothing. By that I mean the most important step that we can take in terms of ecological restoration of these lakes is simply to stop introducing non-native species.”
Ashley Rawhouser, the park's aquatic biologist, said crews will focus their efforts on removing fish from 27 lakes.
"The bigger context of what we’re doing here is we’re trying to restore these lakes, we’re trying to restore these native ecosystems. It’s going to be a long, long time before all the mountain lakes in North Cascades National Park are fishless, if ever," he said. "It’s highly doubtful that we’re going to get the fish out of these really big lakes. So what we’re doing is we’re targeting a select number of lakes which have the most damaging populations of fish in them. These are these lakes that have these high density, naturally reproducing fish populations. We’re talking about 27 lakes and that’s really our focus for now, restoring these 27 lakes with these high density fish populations in them.”
To restore them, crews will use a variety of methods to remove the non-native trout.
“Right now, it looks like the vast majority of them we’re going to be able to use gill nets on, but we’re also experimenting with modifying their spawning habitat and trying to exclude fish from their spawning habitat so that they would just naturally die out or get fished out,” said the biologist.
In actuality, the park officials said, many of the high country lakes that have been stocked with non-native species are not particularly rewarding to fish.
"The high density populations are kind of like a lose-lose all the way around. They have a high ecological footprint on the landscape, they’re damaging to natural ecosystems," said Mr. Rawhouser. "The fish are very good at eating things, and they basically, when they get to these high densities, everything in the lake that they can eat they are preying on, even things that fall into the lakes.
"They’re consuming all the food that’s in there, so what they’ve done is they’ve outstripped their food resources in these lakes, and so you have a really large population of unhealthy fish that people really don’t like to fish because they’re not a very rewarding fish to catch," he said. "They’re small, very skinny. Some of them look like an eel they’re so skinny. And so the Trailblazers, the local fishing organization, Washington state Fish and Wildlife and us, we all agree that these lakes need to be restored for their ecological reasons and also because they’re not fished that much because they’re not a rewarding fishery.”
The park also will concentrate on removing non-native species in other waters that are competing with native species, such as the bull trout, a federally listed threatened species.
"People think they’re doing a good thing, but the consequences of doing that are often really unintended and far-reaching beyond what they thought," said Mr. Rawhouser. "At some point in time people put Eastern Brook Trout into our lakes and now we’ve got this pretty serious problem with the Eastern Brook Trout impacting the bull trout population because of genetic crossbreeding.”
"And the bull trout is federally listed," added the superintendent. "And part of the recovery plan for the bull trout is to actually remove the Eastern Brook Trout.”
Whether die-hard anglers who long have trekked into the park's high country will abide by the change in practices is hard to say.
“We don’t know. We have received notes and you’ve seen comments posted on the web where there are individuals who say that they will attempt to put fish in lakes in the park, regardless," Superintendent Jenkins said. "I think that should have everybody concerned in that we’ve seen that happen in other parks to significant adverse effects. And just going out and randomly putting species into an ecosystem has a potential for having serious adverse effects.”