A history of fish conservation in US brims with colorful and scientific observations - Albuquerque Journal

A history of fish conservation in US brims with colorful and scientific observations


The edifying book “America’s Bountiful Waters” opens with grim early history: From 1800 to 1871, fish had already begun a serious decline in the nation’s lakes and waterways.

The decline was blamed primarily on overfishing and habitat loss, Craig Springer, the book’s editor, said in a phone interview.

However, the book shows the year 1871 also witnessed the fortuitous emergence of three men who spearheaded the first federal conservation agency and the American Conservation Movement. They were George Perkins Marsh, whose visionary report laid the groundwork for a national fisheries program; Spencer Fullerton Baird, who served as the first U.S. fish commissioner; and Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, a hunter/angler and the congressman who authored the legislation that created the U.S. Fish Commission. (His nephew was outdoorsman Theodore Roosevelt, who later became president of the United States.)

“I think those guys came around at the right time, that is, they were the right scientists and the right politicians … to address this emerging national concern,” Springer said.

The large-format book is published this year to commemorate the 150th anniversary of fisheries conservation and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The book is brims with information that’s easily accessible. There’s a series of 24 biographical profiles recognizing the contributions of conservationists who followed in the pioneering work of Marsh, Roosevelt and Baird. The commission itself became the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in 1903 and then in 1940 was reorganized as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The book says the first 100 years of fish conservation carried out “Baird’s legacy of sciences, stocking and sportsmen,” and the last 50 years reflected Rachel Carson’s “ethos of ecology, imperiled species and loss of habitat.” Carson, a fish biologist and writer, worked at the service for many years. But it wasn’t until 1962, 10 years after leaving the service, that Carson gained fame by writing “Silent Spring,” an indictment of pesticides such as DDT that triggered the modern environmental movement.

Carson is the subject of a biographical profile.

Craig Springer

The book also has 49 captivating “fish stories,” articles describing individual fish species, each accompanied by Joseph Tomerelli’s vivid, realistic color illustrations.

One particular fish story may be of special interest to New Mexicans – the Gila trout. It says in part, “It’s hard to describe a national treasure – and Gila trout are just that. A spawning Gila trout is a sight to behold. Gold flanks are speckled with fine pepper along the dorsal. Closer examination reveals hinting of a crimson slash – a throwback from their ancestral split from rainbow trout 1.3 million years ago… .”

The Gila trout is found only in the headwaters of the Gila River system in southwestern New Mexico, Springer said. The Mora National Fish Hatchery in northeast New Mexico is dedicated to Gila trout conservation.

He noted that sport fishing for Gila trout had been closed for some 50 years because it was listed as “endangered.” In 2007, the listing was upgraded to “threatened” status and limited sport fishing has been allowed since.

“The Gila trout propagation at Mora is managed at the genetic level,” Springer said in an email, “We have geneticists at our facility in Dexter, New Mexico, that help our workers in Mora manage the brood stock to ensure that the offspring that go back out into the wild … in the upper Gila watershed are genetically well represented so as to not create inbreeding and able to face the rigors of the wild.”

Dexter is the home to the wildlife service’s Southwestern Fish Health Unit.

The present day, Springer concluded, is a good time for fisheries conservation, with much scientific and technological “horsepower” working in fish conservation.

He thinks the book’s audiences are those who want to know more about nature, the outdoors, history, as well as fishing. And not necessarily in that order.

Part of the book’s conceptualization was to create a volume that one could “crack open to page 2 or 20 or 200 and you learn something new or informative, and mostly illustrated with historic photos,” Springer said.

That’s helpful advice for readers trying to zero in on the multiple connections between and among conservation topics, profiles, historical anecdotes, thoughts on current undertakings with individual species and musings on the future.

Springer was also one of the contributors who wrote articles and text.

“And as you read stories of what’s going on today, for example the story on the striped bass, the information is from the contributor’s own experience as they contemplate what the future holds,” he said. “Some of it is memoir, and it’s very personal, emotionally charged.”

Springer, who lives in Edgewood, has been a fish biologist and writer for the service for almost 29 years. His father was an eighth-generation New Mexican.

Another person with ties to the state and to the book, he said, is Carlos R. Martinez, with family roots in Mora County. He helped conceptualize “America’s Bountiful Waters.”

Martinez is director of the D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery in Spearfish, South Dakota. The hatchery is also the site of the National Fish and Aquatic Conservation Archives.

Proceeds of the book’s sales go to the Booth Society, which organizes and supplies volunteers for community events in Spearfish associated with the hatchery and archives.

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