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1 March 2012 An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World
Jeffery Young
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An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World is not just a thorough account of rainbow trout propagation in the United States. As the subtitle insinuates, the book explains how this fish became the darling of anglers and management agencies alike and reports on the consequences that followed. Author Anders Halverson weaves a rainbow of colorful characters into a historically rich narrative and provides some powerful insights that will interest a wide readership—beyond just those in fisheries management.

Halverson holds a PhD in ecology from Yale University and is an accomplished journalist. Although the book is well researched and provides a summary of aquatic ecology as it relates to the story, Halverson has produced a volume with more historic and political relevance than scientific weight. His most compelling writing pulls together interesting tidbits of history, starting in the mid-1800s, to focus on the men (literally—no women were implicated) who made the rainbow trout the iconic fish that it is today.


This story begins in nineteenth-century North America but has a familiar theme: Overharvesting, dams, logging, and pollution had depleted fish populations, primarily along the eastern United States. Hunting and fishing regulations were not reasonably in place at the time. Fish culture was the answer. The book continues with Livingston Stone and his compatriots establishing early hatcheries on the McCloud River in California after observing the traditional indigenous peoples' Pacific salmon fisheries. The story unfolds with the discovery of the benefits of Oncorhynchus mykiss, a species that offered a lucrative combination of high productivity under cultivation along with a sporting fight. Then came the airdrops of thousands of shimmering juveniles into alpine lakes in order to support the panacea of recreational fishing. Rainbow trout was established as the artificial freshwater fish of choice.

Although it is clear that the popularity of rainbow trout (and its artificial propagation) spread around the globe as the species was introduced, An Entirely Synthetic Fish focuses heavily on just the American story. Short anecdotes are provided regarding Western Europe, but the widespread appearance of the species as a recreational target, to the extent of global dominance, does not receive the coverage in the book that it could. Special attention is paid, instead, to those states that initiated—and to those individuals who developed—the practice and to those who are now most affected by the consequences of the artificial introduction. An interesting account is given of the successful efforts to come full circle and remove introduced rainbow trout from alpine lakes in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Throughout the book, Halverson reveals his personal interest in angling, but he does not hesitate to point out the apparent conflict of interest that can develop between a government agency and the fishery it manages. He states that “there is little question where self-interest lies if an agency's budget and the employee [s'] paychecks depend on the number of people who go fishing.” We also glimpse Halverson's conservation ethic as he describes the return of a functional ecosystem, such as the proliferation of the native mountain yellow-legged frog on the fringes of a trout-free Sierra Nevada lake after the successful eradication of the introduced rainbows.

The ecological impacts of rainbow trout propagation and its consequences of artificial enhancement and invasive species are thoroughly covered, from competitive interactions and genetic effects to pathogen threats exacerbated by climate change. Halverson even includes an efficient retelling of the confusion of the names trout and salmon, applying his knack for digging out the interesting story within the overall history while still providing adequate coverage of the science.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that An Entirely Synthetic Fish offers its readers is in the informative and entertaining example of the rainbow trout itself. For those interested in the interplay of science and politics, particularly as they relate to natural resources and ecosystem management, this fish serves as the focal point along the arched trajectory from idea through experiment and proliferation to realization and restoration, since readers will witness the transition from the early stages of rainbow trout aquaculture to examples of active eradication.

Jeffery Young "An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World," BioScience 62(3), 314-315, (1 March 2012).
Published: 1 March 2012
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