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Delicious Vermin Fishes

Burbot. Ellen Edmonson/New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Three weeks ago I wrote about new DNA evidence that posits that yellow perch are native to the Adirondacks. I was expecting skepticism—the study’s methods will be further tested over the next few years—but none of the reactions I read online questioned the results. Rather, commenters asked a more fundamental thing: who gets to judge what makes one species desirable (in this instance brook trout) and another not (perch)?

There is no seal of approval for having lived in the Adirondacks since the retreat of the glaciers. Likewise, being a naturalized resident of these parts—like a wild apple tree or a dandelion—is not in itself a problem. But apparently some people are still trying to define “invasive” vs. “nuisance,” “aggressive” or just plain “non-native.”

Simply put, what differentiates invasives is that they cause rapid and measurable harm to the environment, economy and sometimes human health. These are the plants and animals we spend time and money trying to keep out or contain—Asian clam, variable-leaf milfoil, hemlock woolly adelgid, Japanese knotweed, to name a few. They will change your yard, your pond and your life in ways that make your property less valuable, literally as well as ecologically. In lakes and rivers, introduced species are the primary driver of change.

I’m not sure yellow perch can be placed neatly on the continuum of desirable-to-undesirable species in the Adirondacks. Conditions vary pond to pond, and there may be things yet to learn about its native range. But I do know the state invests great effort trying to keep perch out of brook trout waters, and the two species appear to be incompatible, disadvantage brook trout. (This article by George Earl details the combination of factors that have decimated Adirondack brook trout.)

I also know that people are incredibly fickle about fish. Where I come from, on Lake Erie, yellow perch rank third in popularity of fish pursued for recreation, behind bass and walleye. Not just because perch are good eating but because overfishing, pollution and introduced fish have winnowed what were once considered the “Big Four” marketable species: lake trout (today still not reproducing on its own), lake whitefish (rebounding), lake herring (aka cisco, still rare) and sturgeon (still endangered).

After the demise of the Big Four, the fish-fry-loving residents of Buffalo, New York, turned to a walleye variant called blue pike for the table. Again for many reasons including overfishing and introduced species, blue pike was declared extinct in 1983. Today, nostalgia for blue pike has clouded out the fact that 19th-century fishermen disdained it as a “coarse fish” that ate the fry of “more marketable fish.”

Now, New York State has all but outlawed commercial fishing on Lake Erie, and my hometown imports haddock, a codlike white-fleshed fish, for Friday night fish fry. Haddock is from the North Atlantic, but as far as younger generations know it is normal to eat ocean fish amid the Great Lakes. Haddock has become Buffalo’s fish. Meanwhile, upstate New York fishermen toss native freshwater cod onto the ice to die. As someone who takes an interest in fish more as food than sport, it puzzles me why anyone would throw away cod.

This freshwater cod is called lawyer, ling, and more commonly burbot. It’s not found in upland Adirondack waters but it is in Lake Champlain and Oneida Lake. Despite burbot’s local provenance, a New York State biological survey of the Champlain watershed published in 1930 characterized it as a “vermin fish”:

“In Lake Champlain there are found three fishes which are known to feed upon others and as they are of practically no value themselves, it is the general opinion that the lake would be better off without them. . . . The ling, gar and bowfin are the three which are under consideration.”

The report goes on to recognize the ling as “a fairly good fish when skinned before cooking, [but] the ling is not utilized by many Lake Champlain fishermen.” It concludes that more people should eat burbot so that there will be fewer in the lake, in hopes that their absence would allow a rebound of the already overfished lake trout, which share the cold bottom water in summer.

Today, lake trout still fail to regenerate in Lake Champlain but nobody blames burbot. Nor do I know many people who would rather eat lake trout than burbot.

Fish are victims of fashion. One region’s caviar is another’s trash. A Top Four table fish of a century ago is a forgotten fish today. This does not mean that we should not do everything we can to maintain assemblages of fish that have evolved together over thousands of years. The Adirondacks still has waters like that; not many places do. Introducing new species disrupts pond life quickly and often irreparably. In the endearingly unscientific language of the early 20th century state biological surveys, it can be akin to letting a wolf into a sheepfold.

Still, it’s striking to read scientists advocating for the extirpation of a native species only decades ago. They had no idea how quickly things were about to change. Most fisheries managers today only dream of dealing with a relatively simple food web. Instead 50 new species have reached Lake Champlain over the past century, an increasingly unpredictable aquarium at the edge of the Adirondacks.

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