Whether you love them or hate them, once a nonnative fish species invades a stream or river, it is often impossible to get them out. Sometimes these colonization events are entirely accidental, like the Eurasian-native round goby that is thought to have been released in ship ballast waters sometime in the 1980s. Other times, nonnative introductions are deliberate, like the stocking of nonnative trout throughout the United States.
While present-day stocking efforts reflect the desire to have fish in certain locations, the distribution of nonnative trout largely represents the ghosts of managements past. Today, it is unlikely (I hope) that we would stock nonnative brook trout in the Rocky Mountains where they readily outcompete native cutthroats. Likewise, we might think twice about the extent of brown trout stocking on the east coast if we knew how readily they displace native brook trout populations. However, at the turn of the 20th century, we didn’t know better. Nonnative trout stocking became the status quo and, to a large degree, it set the precedence for modern-day fish management.
But, as science evolves, and as managers, anglers, and conservationists seek to find a balance between native fish conservation and recreational fishing, we’re often find ourselves in a position of regret. We now know the threat nonnative trout can have on native species; however, there is very little we can do about it. Manual removal of nonnative trout is often ineffective because it is labor intensive (read: expensive), and requires managers to electrofish large stretches of stream and pick out natives from nonnatives. It’s also possible to chemically remove undesired fish, but this method of removal also kills native fish and can have other ecosystem-wide impacts. And, in the end, neither manual or chemical removal prevents a nonnative trout from outside the study reach moving into a managed stream and undoing all the efforts. With our hands seemingly tied, a lot of people now argue for management and conservation of nonnatives, quoting that “nonnatives are the future of the fishery”, that “something is better than nothing,” or “let’s do the best with what we’ve got.”
But, what if we could rewind the clock? What if we could actually eradicate nonnatives? Manual and chemical removal are unlikely to be effective eradication measures but, ironically, stocking might just be a saving grace for some native trout populations.
The trick? Stock “supermales”- male fish that are only capable of producing male offspring, In theory, over several generations of reproduction with supermales in the population, the sex ratio of a population would become so far skewed towards males that the population would not be self-sustaining and would collapse.
So, how do supermales work? Recall from basic biology that all females have two X chromosomes, and all males have one X and one Y chromosome. During reproduction, females contribute an egg with an X chromosome, and then offspring sex determination is decided by whether the egg is fertilized with sperm that has an X or a Y chromosome. In supermales, all sperm have Y chromosomes, and so all offspring from supermales are males. So, stocking supermales is basically an effort to remove X chromosomes (and thus females) from a population.
It sounds difficult, but the production of supermales is actually relatively easy and has been used in aquaculture for decades. Producing a supermale requires feeding normal fish estrogen-infused food, which causes males to produce eggs rather than sperm. When hormone-treated males (with eggs) mate with untreated males (with sperm), about 1/3 of the offspring will only have Y chromosomes (the other 2/3 will have at least one X chromosome). If you mate the Y-only feminized males with Y-only supermales together, 100% of the offspring with be supermales that only have Y-chromosomes and, when stocked, will only produce male offspring. And, because supermales themselves were never exposed to hormones, there is no concern about consumption of stocked fish or introduction of chemicals into the environment.
Seems like a win, right? Now that hatchery production methods for supermale trout have been ironed out, it seems like the possibilities could be endless. However, now there is another problem. Survival and reproduction of stocked trout is often very poor compared to wild counterparts. And, for supermale stocking to result in complete eradication of a nonnative trout population, supermales have to comprise a relatively large proportion of the spawning population.
Fisheries managers in Idaho are now in the process of evaluating survival and reproduction of supermales, and the potential efficacy of supermale stocking for nonnative species control. Simulating possible scenarios, they determined that stocking juvenile supermales could result in complete eradication of nonnative brook trout populations in less then ten years, with faster eradication rates occurring when stocking is combined with manual removal of wild fish. This was a promising result; however, another study of actual fish populations showed that stocked adult supermales had low survival and reproduction compared to wild counterparts. So, while the supermales did reproduce (which is encouraging), only about 4% of wild offspring had a supermale father.
For supermale stocking to be an effective method of population eradication, managers will have to find a way to increase reproduction of stocked supermales. How to achieve this goal remains a little uncertain. It can’t be achieved by simply stocking a higher density of supermales. Higher stocking densities are known to increase mortality of stocked fish, and mortality of stocked supermales has already been shown to be high. However, it may be that a combination of stocking and manual removal could increase survival and reproduction of supermales, which could increase the probability of eventual eradication. Or, survival and reproduction may be higher if juveniles are stocked rather than adults, or vice versa. All of these hypotheses are currently being tested to improve supermale reproduction in Idaho streams.
I think it’s also important to note that so far the end goal of supermale stocking has been complete eradication. However, even if eradication is not possible, supermales may still be effective for suppression of nonnative populations. This could help preserve native fish populations while still allowing for nonnative fish persistence. However, regardless of whether the goal becomes eradication or suppression of nonnatives, the success of supermale stocking is also going to depend on management of adjacent tributaries. If stocking continues in nearby tributaries, then movement of nonnative fish back into managed waterways will ultimately make supermale stocking efforts futile.
So, are supermales too good to be true? For now, only time will tell.
*Note: Content in this post is my own and may not reflect the opinion of the manuscripts' authors or the agencies they represent. I encourage you to read the manuscript, found here and here, so you can contribute to the discussion