Ann and Nancy's War
Restoration of imperiled fish just got shut down where it's needed most
Fly Rod & Reel July/Oct. 2005
In the April 2004 issue I discussed the tragically misguided effort to ban the chemical piscicides rotenone and antimycin-chemicals that are used to poison alien fish prior to reintroducing natives, and which in most cases are the only tools available to save imperiled fish from extinction. At the time, that effort-led by Nancy Erman, a retired macroinvertebrate researcher from the University of California-Davis, and Ann McCampbell, of the Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Task Force of New Mexico (a group consisting, basically, of herself)-was only impeding restoration. Now, however, the two states where native fish populations are in most desperate need of these piscicides have, for all intents and purposes, banned them. Restoration in California and New Mexico has been stopped dead in its tracks; and the future of rotenone and antimycin, along with the native fish (not just trout) that can't be saved without them, is in jeopardy across America.
Facing possible extinction unless the bans are lifted are: the threatened Paiute cutthroat (the rarest trout in the world), the Gila trout (America's only inland salmonid listed as endangered), the Rio Grande cutthroat (New Mexico's state fish), the Lahontan cutthroat (once believed extinct), and the golden trout (California's state fish). In response, the Desert Fishes Council passed a resolution supporting piscicides at its November meeting in Tucson. In attendance was the world's foremost salmonid authority, Dr. Robert Behnke, who writes me as follows regarding the New Mexico Game Commission's August 18, 2004 decision to strip the Game and Fish Department of authority to use piscicides without commission consent: "Besides local chemophobes, a [non-practicing] medical doctor [McCampbell] raised nonsensical questions about contamination of groundwater-poisoning drinking water supplies. Her status as a 'medical authority' caused the commission to suspend treatment. Once this was accomplished, the chemophobe network notified the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, leading it to believe that credible risks for piscicides had been established, and the board blocked the Silver King Creek rotenone treatment [to recover Paiute cutts]."
McCampbell and Erman's stunning success this past year would not have been possible without major help from sportsmen and the media. The threat of genetic introgression tends not to register with anglers. And why should it? They've been conditioned by the management establishment to relish Frankenstein fish-pigment-impoverished mutants and weird hybrids that keep the hatchery bureaucracy in business because they have to be concocted from genetically twisted stock or from species so divergent they're likely to produce sterile offspring. It's expecting a lot of anglers who read the hype about "palamino trout," "centennial golden rainbows," "albino rainbows," "saugeyes," "splake," "tiger trout," "tiger muskies," and "wipers" to worry about rainbow genes showing up in Gilas or cutts.
But there's antipathy as well as apathy. To see it you need go no further than fly-fishing Internet forums. One participant on the FR&R bulletin board (www.flyrodreel.com) writes about the recently aborted rotenone treatment of California's Silver King Creek, which would have de-listed Paiute cutts, thereby opening a closed fishery: "If they poison the stream and only the threatened native species is there, you won't ever be able to fish for it. . . . But we all know that closing down public access here would be great to these wackos." Another participant likens poisoning mongrel trout to "ethnic cleansing" and goes on to say: "I am a mongrel of sorts myself and delight in my diversity. . . . We Americans champion the freedom to love who ever we choose to love. . . . We abhor those who seek human genetic purity! American military men and women have died and continue to die for the freedom of others oppressed by those who wish to impose the same limitations on man as you are seeking to impose on trout. . . . 'Purity' is a word often used by racists, Nazis and bigots."
Two years ago the feds announced they would use antimycin to restore pure Colorado River cutts to Lake Pettingell on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The lake is hardly a major angling destination-there's no trail, and it's a 12-mile poke during which you climb 3,000 vertical feet, then slide down about 7,000 vertical feet to fish an eight-acre pond. Local anglers could have fished for the pure cutts, but they were sentimental about their mongrels and threw such a hissy fit that the Park Service backed off.
With few exceptions the media is fish-stupid and lazy. Rather than really investigate the issues of native-fish restoration, reporters collect a few quotes from someone like Behnke, then offer what they call "the other side" by interviewing some utterly uncredentialed crackpot. In one Associated Press piece about the proposed project to recover Paiute cutts the only alleged authority cited was one Patty Clary of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, who was quoted as making this false statement: "Essentially what they're proposing is to kill everything-everything-in this stream." High Country News recycled wives' tales spun by a rancher (a heavy user of herbicides and insecticides) who claimed that his "pregnant ewes must have drunk some [antimycin] poisoned water [because] the following spring two lambs were born dead with kidneys that weighed four pounds. It was totally grotesque." More alleged evidence was provided in the form of quotes from the terrified owner of Paprika (a pregnant llama) who claimed to have "started studying antimycin" on the Internet where he found all manner of "disturbing" info. Finally, the piece reported that rotenone applied to California's pike-infested Lake Davis sent 62 people to the hospital. The truth was that 62 residents, having whipped themselves to hysteria with poppycock provided by McCampbell and others, went to the hospital because they wrongly supposed they'd been sickened by rotenone, a naturally occurring chemical that in 71 years of use by fish managers has never been known to harm a person. (To the credit of High Country News, it allowed me to set the record straight in "Writers on the Range"-a syndicated column it sends to major Western newspapers.)
Despite suffering from what she calls "multiple chemical sensitivity," McCampbell was in full cry this past August at the New Mexico Game Commission meeting. Also in attendance were at least half a dozen of her acolytes, including Sam Hitt of Wild Watershed, who writes of her as follows: "Dr. Ann McCampbell, New Mexico's most effective advocate for a toxic-free environment, is a card-carrying outsider. Marginalized, ridiculed, ignored, she operates from the edge, without staff or budget, stitching together unlikely coalitions that win with the power of truth and little else. . . . Today she advocates despite debilitating illness, forced to live from time to time in a relatively chemical-free 1983 Chevy. . . . Dr. Ann slowly made her way from the back of the room to a table in front of the commissioners. After saying a sentence or two she would cover her nose and mouth with the respirator and take a deep breath."
McCampbell and her unlikely coalitions do win, but hardly with "the power of truth." She warns that the commercial formulation of antimycin-applied at less than 12 parts per billion-carries "a skull and crossbones warning" and "is fatal in humans if swallowed" directly from the bottle. All sorts of useful liquids also fall into this category, but not amtimycin. Because it's nontoxic to humans, EPA no longer requires the skull and crossbones on the label. At the commission meeting she and her troupe repeatedly called antimycin a "broad-spectrum poison"-this of a naturally occurring chemical with a half life of hours (unless it's exposed to direct sunlight, in which case, the half life is a few minutes) and that eradicates only fish, provided the treatment is successful. Further, she claimed that antimycin has been "banned in California . . . because, actually, California EPA has done the most updated review of this product."
First, it wasn't "banned;" it was just not re-registered because the new state pesticide regulations require rigorous testing that antimycin's manufacturer-Nick Romeo, who operates out of his house-can't afford, owing to his miniscule market. Second, California has not done a "review" of antimycin.
McCampbell told me there are plenty of alternatives to piscicides. When I asked her what these might be she said: "genetic swamping" (saturating mongrels with pure stock), "overfishing," and "netting" (none of which work), and "electro-fishing," which is horrendously labor intensive and works only on tiny streams.