Ideas in this blog post are that of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of other blog members or collaborating agencies.
I usually bite my tongue when I hear the phrase “wild trout.” In science, “wild” has a few different meanings. It can refer to a population that occurs in nature (as opposed to in a laboratory), or one that is, more or less, uninfluenced by human interaction. When we talk about trout, there’s generally little uncertainty that we are talking about a population that occurs outdoors. But, that later definition of “wild” can be a bit ambiguous. In reality, there are few truly wild populations of trout still present and so our use of the term has evolved with increasing human influence of fish populations. Is a heavily fished population wild? What about a population that was last stocked 50+ years ago? How about a completely remote population that has never been fished, but in an area that experiences acid rain? Science doesn’t have the answers to those questions.
But, what is more problematic than the ambiguity in the term “wild,” is that at some point it started being used in a way that made it difficult to distinguish from the term “native.” Likely because people wanted to distinguish between an actively stocked population, versus one that had established and was self-reproducing. I understand the desire to distinguish the two, but ultimately the choice of words has, to me, fueled one of the biggest challenges we have in native trout conservation.
Before I explain myself, let me define a few terms that are used to describe fish and wildlife populations:
Native: A species that naturally occurs in a particular location. That is, if we rewound the clock hundreds of years, this species would be there. On the east coast, brook trout are the only native trout species.
Nonnative: A species that does not naturally occur in a particular location, and historically would not be present. On the east coast, brown and rainbow trout are nonnative with the former being from Europe and the latter western North America.
Invasive: Definitions for this term vary, but the simplest is a nonnative species that causes harm to native populations. A nonnative species isn’t always invasive, and there is a lot of debate as to whether brown and rainbow trout are nonnative or invasive on the east coast (with the answer probably varying depending on the region).
Naturalized: A nonnative species that has existed in an area for long time (i.e., several generations) and is naturally reproducing.
Now, let me return to the phrase “wild trout.” Oddly enough, on the east coast it is rare to hear that phrase in reference to brook trout. It’s much more common for someone to say a “wild brown trout” or “wild rainbow trout” fishery. And, when they say it, they are generally trying to express to their audience that the population they are talking about is of high quality. But, should we reference large, nonnative trout populations as “wild?”
Before you answer that question, think about this. What if you replaced the term “wild” with “naturalized.” A naturalized brown trout fishery. That terminology conveys the same meaning but is less ambiguous and technically more accurate. However, I would guess that it doesn’t sit as easy with you and that, given the opportunity, you would value a “wild” fishery over a “naturalized” fishery. This makes sense- humans have a more instinctive connection to the word “wild”. We want to believe that what is wild is good and wonderful. “Naturalized” doesn’t evoke the same pleasant emotions as “wild.”
But, would you use the term “wild” to reference another nonnative species? A wild population of murder hornets. Or, a wild population of black rats? How about even a native species that is a nuisance? Wild poison ivy. Probably not, because you don’t want to associate those species with something pleasant and good.
The problem is that when we misuse the term “wild” in reference to trout, we run the risk of misinformation. If you are new to an area, or not quite up to speed on dynamics of all species in your local stream, then you might hear the phrase “wild” and assume a good, healthy, natural population. And, even if you later learn that that wild population is nonnative, it likely deemphasizes the significant negative effects that nonnative species can have on native populations.
I’m sure many readers of this blog already know that a “wild brown trout” is still nonnative. And, you may have read numerous times how brown trout often decrease the health and size of brook trout populations, and that studies have shown that nonnative trout do not fill the same ecological space as native trout populations, regardless of how morphologically similar. But, would your child? Your parents? What about your neighbor or the stranger you meet in the checkout line at the store? Probably not. Like it or not, anglers are environmental educators, and it is our responsibility to spread truth. Not opinion. Sometimes that means recognizing how something as simple as word choice influences the public perception of our natural resources.
Worse, using the term “wild” encourages you, and anyone you may speak to, to practice lazy stewardship. Ultimately, how we manage a fishery- including the species in it- comes down to what we value about that fishery. Should we value high population densities of large fish- regardless of whether the species is native or nonnative? Or should we sacrifice some fishing opportunity in order to maintain native-only populations? Does the answer vary by stream, or is it universal across an entire range?
It’s a difficult decision- but that’s just the point. It SHOULD be difficult. People should be given the opportunity to do the research, understand the costs and benefits to each scenario, and make informed decision about their own value system. But, intentional or unintentional, when we use “wild” to refer to nonnative species, we plant the seed that this species belongs here and that we should encourage future spread. If enough anglers are influenced by this terminology, wild trout will never win.
And, if you do decide that you enjoy that population of a nonnative species, what do you lose by using the term “naturalized?” Worse thing that could happen is that you spread valuable information.