Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ozark pickle

Annually, on March 1, fly fishermen descend on a handful of beautiful Ozark springs, standing in 56 degree water, shoulder to shoulder. Throughout trout season, they cast their wooly boogers and stoneflies made of squirrel fur in an attempt to catch farm raised trout by the buckets. Trout fishermen supply one of our state agencies with serious revenue with every trout tag they buy. The trout they catch have been reared on pellet food, so any fly that looks like a little gray nub would be more effective than any accurate mayfly representation. Brown trout are not native to Missouri, but our fast moving, cold, clear water streams resemble western brown trout habitat. Millions of dollars are spent annually to support fish hatcheries in the Ozarks, and fishermen spend millions of dollars when they visit the Ozark Highlands to catch grain-fed animals.

Since the 1930s, a state agency has been rearing trout and dumping them into springs and rivers throughout the Ozarks. It's another form of recreation, they say, one that supports conservation of the very rivers the trout pollute. The problem with grain-fed brown trout in Missouri is that, in short, they're not supposed to be here and continue to upset the fragile biota of our rivers. While supplying Missourians with another recreational option, brown trout are decimating the very natural history that the same state agency aims to protect.

As fingerlings, they're set free in rivers where they feed on anything and everything that comes into sight. They'll eat invertebrates, smaller darters, and even Ozark hellbenders, the largest salamander in the state slated for federal listing this month on the Endangered Species Act. Ozark hellbender populations have dropped in the past 30 years. They've been extirpated from several rivers in the Ozarks and are never found in thriving populations anymore. Many adults now have small nubs for limbs, having served as a food source for trout. Young Ozark hellbenders aren't being found at all, likely predated by trout.

Research abounds on the hellbender populations. Degraded water quality from sedimentation and fertilizers is one culprit. Sedimentation from too many floaters on the river has been offered as another reason for the sharp decline. Increased E.coli from floaters relieving themselves in the rivers has been listed as yet another reason. The problem with all of these reasons is that the studies have been conducted by the very agency which dumps millions of trout into Ozark rivers every spring. Hellbender predation by trout is largely to blame for the declines, but, because of the income trout fishermen generate, the agency can't do much about it.

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