Wednesday, November 9, 2005

A Fisherman’s (possible) Dream Fish

What fishermen like is catching fish, and if that fish strikes artificial baits aggressively, grows to be a whopper in a relatively short time and is excellent to eat, then what’s not to like?  Tasty white meat, a fighter that grows to three feet in length, this freshwater game fish has everything required to get fathers and sons up early and in the boat together. Make that mothers and daughters as well, as more and more fishermen are women.


But we need a name for it that’s more attractive for the frying pan than snakehead.  Ugh.  Can I please have another helping of snakehead? doesn’t do much for dinner table conversation.  Some more snakehead, darling?  Won’t work.


FishingBut it strikes me that before we stumble all over ourselves poisoning ponds and constructing elaborate electric fences across rivers, we ought to take a look at this Asian fish that’s been found in some East Coast ponds as well as the Potomac River tributaries.  Steve Minkkinen, snakehead expert at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says “There’s a lot we don’t know about this fish.”


Well said, Steve.  So, let’s not denigrate it before we understand it. While they may not be able to control spread of the species in the Potomac, Fish and Wildlife is eager to see that it doesn’t spread elsewhere.  My question is why?  Because we might deprive a few stodgy old walleye fishermen of their fast-action bobber-fishing?  (Don't write me, I've fished for walleye myself, even ate one once)


Economies of several states are closely tied to freshwater fishing and in at least one with which I am familiar, fishing success is too unreliable to register these days as a core sport.  Northern Wisconsin’s walleye fishing continues to decline and musky fishing is so illusive as to be pretty much a mirage.  Professional guides these days are mostly school teachers on summer break because a living can no longer be made from guiding fishermen. Compare that with the days of the 'Fisherman's Special' out of Chicago that the C&NW ran into Woodruff, Wisconsin every Friday night. A sleeper, the Special was unhitched and sat on its side track until guides picked up their fishermen on Saturday morning.


Decades ago, Wisconsin took it’s most prolific and easiest-to-catch game fish and denigrated it by calling the species ‘snakes’ and thus the northern pike fell from favor.  Hindsight may see that as a mistake, now that stunningly beautiful Wisconsin lakes have run out of fishermen and been taken over by jet-skis.


According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports, in 1996 an estimated 35.2 million people 16 years of age and older spent over $38 billion in goods and services related to fishing in the United States.  That's a lot of dough. If fishing was a company, that dollar amount would rank it in the top 20 of the Fortune 500 list for 1996. 1996 was after the Fisherman's Special and before Google, so who knows what the ranking would be today.


Fishing2The $38 billion includes expenditures at sporting goods stores, specialty fishing stores, hotels and motels, fishing lodges and camps, guide services, retail food stores and restaurants.  This money rippled through the national, state and local economies, adding up to a total economic impact of $108 billion. Sport fishing sustains 1.2 million jobs, worth $28 billion in total earnings.  It also generates over $5.5 billion in taxes.  Expenditures from fishing are, or at least were, central to the economic health and growth of many small communities.


Fish and Wildlife might well do two things before they trash the reputation of (possibly) a savior-fish.  Number one, find a handsome and catchy (no pun intended) name for it.  Second, initiate some experimental programs in relatively large land-locked lakes in both the north and south.  Let’s find the potential of this Asian accidental import, see how it adapts and if lakes can sustain it alongside a stable population of panfish, trout, bass, walleye and other native varieties. So-called invasive species often stabilize and adapt to their environment without destroying it.


Thirty years ago the alewife overwhelmed Lake Michigan, driving down perch populations and virtually wrecking beaches with an annual die-off requiring trucks to haul them off.  The great equalizer of the alewife misery turned out to be the coho salmon, a fish we’d never heard of in Lake Michigan when I was a kid.  There’s a huge industry associated with coho fishing now and the lake and its fishermen are far the better for it.


But please, let’s find another name for the snakehead before inviting friends over for dinner.  Any ideas?
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A bunch more environmental issues muddying the waters on my personal web site.