Setting up beside a stream with a fishing pole on a hot summer afternoon is a popular Utah pastime, but not all fish are equally sought after. Accordingly, fish stocking practices in Utah’s waterways have selected for certain species at the expense of less desirable fish, placing human preferences over ecology.
Stocking fish is older than statehood. The first efforts in the 1880s intended to raise fish – such as German carp – for food. By 1900, fish and wildlife managers had shifted focus to sport fish, stocking rivers and streams with bass, catfish, and – of course – trout. Recreational fishers love catching trout, but Utah’s native Bonneville cutthroat trout was endangered by that time, due to overfishing and other human impacts on the environment. Utah’s native chubs, suckers, and whitefish were disparaged by anglers and wildlife managers alike, considered to be “trash fish” good for nothing but animal feed and fertilizer.
Early fish stock management involved setting catch limits on trout, but not on the less desirable fish. By the 1950s, wildlife managers began drastic removal programs, based on the assumption that these coarse fish were competing with rainbow and brook trout. This meant that state agencies poisoned the undesired fish with a selective toxicant. They also trapped fish on a large scale, removing “500 tons of trash fish” in 1952 and 1953 alone. Compared to other Western states’ use of dynamite and electrical shocks to kill fish, Utah’s methods were relatively mild!
At the end of the twentieth century, fish and wildlife managers turned toward preserving native species, including "trash fish." But the practice of using toxicants to rid waterways of native fish still exists. Utah’s Department of Wildlife Resources used this method as recently as 2021 to remove native chub from Navajo Lake, then stocked the lake with brook, tiger, and rainbow trout. The goal was to quote “restore Navajo Lake as a prize trout fishery.” While the chub may be native, the state points out that these fish can dominate the ecosystem of an artificial reservoir like Navajo Lake. Still, there is no denying that humans prefer some species to others, and our wildlife management practices continue to reflect that.
See Jen Corrinne Brown, “Trash Fish: Native Fish Species in a Rocky Mountain Trout Culture,” Western Historical Quarterly 45, no. 1 (2014): 37-58; Brian Maffly, “Why is Utah poisoning all the fish in Navajo Lake?” Salt Lake Tribune, August 26, 2021; Chris Penne, “The strategy and science behind fish stocking,” Wildlife Blog, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, June 26, 2020.