An Entirely Synthetic Fish
How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World
By Anders Halverson / Yale University Press 2010
Review by CCF Member Leigh Seippel
Put this book in your head, and then every rainbow trout
come to hand will be even more wondrous.
An Entirely Synthetic Fish, written by Yale Ph. D. Anders Halverson, is a kaleidoscopic view of two creatures: oricorhynchus mykiss and homo sapien sapien. Near the end of this book, Halverson writes, "Look that fish in the eye, imagine all the effort that humans have put into helping the species achieve a nearly global conquest, and ask yourself which of you is subordinate in the relationship." The history leading up to that view into the fish's eye is even more complex than more than 70 present strains of rainbow trout speciation now finning through every country in the world.
Halverson's concise 188 pages are an often counter-intuitive tale whose own historic tributaries flow out of mid-19th century American masculine insecurity, imperial hubris, populist self-assurance, political wiles and technical brilliance.
There are surprises in the book. For example, in the industrializing mid-19th century, it was common for leaders to worry that East coast American males had become fat, soft-muscled couch potatoes that their forebears would not recognize. In response, the U.S. government funded an experimental program to encourage fishing for hatchery-produced landlocked salmon as a manly outdoor builder of body and spirit? And, after the first national stockings of salmon died wherever not native, possible scandal over waste in an anti-government era was hushed up, lest Congress halt its temporary funding.
Did you know that rainbows were stocked throughout nearly every state as the nation's first environmental movement? Our great-great-grandfathers did not like governmental dictates any more than Tea Party members today. So, since progress from the 1870s and on required massive industrialization of watersheds, their answer was not to hinder this industry at all. Instead, disappearing East coast salmon and brook trout were simply replaced by enormous continual stocking of the far hardier California rainbows turned out by the new federal program. In that anti-regulatory era, the stocking was as heavy as possible so that the government would not risk attacks for imposing catch limits on its free citizens.
Early rainbow stocking was not all American politics, though. The entire world took up trout stocking in the latter half of the 19th century in a spirit of larger romanticism about exotic species. As empires spread and discovered new beasts, it was the joy of scientists to spread their range
The book goes on through the 20th century rapidly swimming alongside the destiny of rainbows. Scientists become ever more clever over the decades in custom-designing strains of fish. Some waters become stocked with mixed cocktails of rainbow types: those who stay conveniently near a shoreline, those who are casual about striking lures, those who are more clever and live longer, those who can handle warmer and dirtier water, those who prosper in extreme cold, those with a golden hue. Federal and state governments have grown fishery operations exponentially, so greatly that their airplanes begin bombing hatchery rainbows into even the most remote waters. The rainbow trout is the state fish in Colorado and Utah, though no natural rainbow trout ever lived there.
And now, many scientists, environmentalists and officials in charge of fishery regulation assert that the spread of rainbows actually went too far because it displaces naturally present life forms. As interest in accurately historic habitats has become more popular over the past two decades, a view has taken among some regulators that specific introduced rainbow populations need to be exterminated so that native species can be re-established. These new governmental exterminators of some rainbow populations include many of the same agencies which energetically planted them for more than a century.
But do not worry. These fish are tough characters who went into business on their own 17 million years ago. Rainbow trout shall abide the globe.