How I Came to Write An Entirely Synthetic Fish

(Modified from an original post at America's Wild Read titled "Introduction as Guest Moderator at America's Wild Read")

I’ll start this blog 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.

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.

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 http://andershalverson.com

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