Dam Nation: The False Promise of America’s Artificial Fishing Economies

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Fly fishing on the increasingly artificial waters of Arkansas’ White River is an object lesson in the perils of valuing tourism over sustainability.

By Alice Driver

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A cutthroat trout, raised in Norfork National Fish Hatchery in Arkansas, a long way from its native waters in the Rockies. (Photo: Ben Levin)

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This week, Pacific Standard

looks at the global seafood industry — how it’s responding to class, consumer trends, and a new climate.

Growing up on the banks of the blue-green Little Mulberry River in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, Ben Levin spent more of his life in the water than on land. He can’t remember how young he was when he caught his first fish at the backwater slough next to his house, but he has always felt at home among the crawdads, water moccasins, and snapping turtles that populate Arkansas rivers. He discovered fly fishing as a child, and by the time he was 17 he was traveling with the USA Youth International Fly Fishing Team. Levin, now 34, has spent the last 16 years as a fly fishing guide on the White River in northwest Arkansas, an area known for some of the best trout fishing on the planet.

Although Levin was attracted to fly fishing because of his love for the natural world, once he found a job in the fishing economy, he realized that it was anything but natural. Beginning in 1944, the United States Army Corps of Engineers constructed a series of three dams on the White River that changed the entire ecosystem, right down to insect life. Further, the Army engineers flooded the valley above the White River, but not below, which can be bad for the river because floods are natural cleansers for the river system. They move along silt and pollutants and provide varied food sources for fish. Thanks to the dams, water temperatures dropped precipitously, and most native fish species were driven downriver to warmer water. In response, in 1957 the federal government opened up the Norfork National Fish Hatchery, which today supplies almost all of the rainbow trout stocked in the White River System. They are often harvested before they reach full size and then released — by the millions — into the White River to ensure that fishermen can take home their maximum limit: five rainbow trout per day with no size restriction.

Artificial fishing creates a vibrant economy but also a problem, as dams choke off and block wild rivers, driving out native fish species and replacing them with trout. As Levin notes, artificial fish stocks throw the industry out of balance, as “one fishery is sacrificed for a more glamorous one.” Although Levin guides fly fishermen regularly, when I asked him if he eats fish, he replied, “Almost never because the rainbow trout in the White River are the nutritional equivalent of dog food.”

Dams like those on the White River put in motion a chain of events that convert a natural ecosystem into an artificial one.

“I love taking people fly fishing and showing them our local waters and how good the fishing can be in this beautiful, unassuming part of the world, but part of the tension I feel comes from promoting a fishery and local economy that thrives almost entirely on stocked fish,” Levin says. “Sometimes it feels like I’m taking somebody to a fake garden and admiring the high volume of mediocre exotic flowers grown somewhere else and trucked in by the thousands.”

The White River is located in a part of Arkansas with a long history of economic depression, but, ever since the dams were built, fishing has accounted for a significant, even crucial portion of the regional economy. The most recent Fish and Wildlife Service survey, conducted in 2011, showed that $496 million had been spent on fishing-related activities in Arkansas in the previous year.

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Ben Levin with a wild Crooked Creek smallmouth bass. (Photo: Ben Levin)

That’s good for the regional economy — in the short term. In the long term, it creates a perilously unsustainable environment for all species, whether natural or artificial. As Levin observes: “Except for our short catch-and-release areas, the entire system has been managed as a put-and-take fishery, which far shorts the potential of a world class tailwater like the White.” Stricter regulations on the number and size of catch would provide for a more natural growth pattern and lifespan for rainbow trout, which Levin thinks is important. “Most rivers in the U.S. have dams of some kind now, but there are also unforeseen effects on the future. No one really knows what the long-term picture is when it comes to the health of these blocked rivers.”

When Levin began working as a fly fishing guide, he believed that taking people out on the river gave him the chance to introduce them to the natural world and get them interested in conservation. Over the years, though, he says he has also become disillusioned, after witnessing the pressure that tourism puts on the local ecosystem as well as the lack of environmental regulations. Although the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is deeply involved in overseeing the fisheries, when it comes to protecting water quality in the ecosystem surrounding the White River, the Commission’s work falls short.

“Game and Fish services across the country are charged with the double task of providing access and info to the public on our fisheries and also adequately protecting them at the same time,” Levin says. “Some states balance these two jobs very well, while others are lagging behind. In Arkansas I have seen a handful of commendable advances in fishery conservation, but all too often the state promotes a fishery and builds up access first, failing to provide the necessary protection to the fishery to accompany the increased use.”

Levin is inspired by childhood memories of the pristine Little Mulberry River, and he still believes that his most important job as a guide is promoting conservation. He serves on the board of Friends of the North Fork of the White River, a local conservation group that focuses on the health of the middle region of the White River drainage. This organization takes a broad-spectrum approach to water quality management, public education, and local policy: FNFWR has helped with many conservation efforts in the area, including correcting bad development practices along the rivers and their tributaries, monitoring point and non-point source pollution in the watershed, and educating the public on good land-use practices. There is a need for these kinds of conservation efforts because development in the area often continues unchecked: In his time on the river, Levin has witnessed as a developer bulldozed an entire mountainside on the Norfork River (a section of the White River) to make way for a subdivision — all without any kind of critical erosion control.

Dams like those on the White River put in motion a chain of events that convert a natural ecosystem into an artificial one; in turn, that artificial system, with its Frankenstein-sized fish, attracts more tourists — which creates a worrisome situation in which we are loving our rivers to death. For now, Levin continues to guide people through the waters of his home in the belief that his work can help protect the natural beauty of the area by introducing future generations to a river worth preserving.

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