Fear not, trout-fanciers: your alien fish are here to stay

Trout are an invasive species. This much is not contested. Originally from Canada and Europe, the rainbow and brown variants were introduced to South Africa in the late 1800s. They have thrived in the cold rivers and dams along the Drakensberg. Trout fishing and breeding is now a healthy industry.

But the species’ future is contested. The department of environmental affairs wants trout declared an invasive alien species, which will add them to a list of species that need to be removed from South Africa, if it is practical to do so. A lobby group — the Federation of Southern African Fly-fishers — says this move will kill an important industry, and is taking the department to court.

READ MORE: Department’s fishing scoresheets illegal, says expert

This is the culmination of a decade-long and often heated debate. The environmental affairs department has, for 10 years, been working on a plan to deal with invasive alien species. A list of about 600 more species was added to the Alien and Invasive Species list, which was gazetted for public comment in February. With the time for comments having passed, the department is taking the final steps to turn the list into law.

When this happens, trout will be listed as a category two invasive alien species. The department says this is based on two risk assessments, undertaken on rainbow and brown trout in South Africa. The risk assessments noted (in that formal language of science) that “trout have been demonstrated to negatively impact the receiving ecosystem”.

So trout are bad news for other species that are indigenous to the streams and rivers to which they are introduced. Much like humans, they are incredibly good at adapting to new habitats. All they need is a moving body of fresh water with a temperature below 21°C. The frosty mountains of the Drakensberg fit that need perfectly.

The risk assessment says trout eat indigenous fish species or bully them into moving and the resultant hunger causes their populations to shrink.

Gazetting trout as an invasive alien species requires that government do all it can to eradicate the species. At the very least, it has to stop them from spreading to other waters.

The fly-fishing federation has come out in vocal opposition to the February announcement. Its argument is that trout farms bring about R2-billion into the economy and the industry has created about 13 000 jobs in rural areas. In opinion pieces, radio interviews and in talking to the Mail & Guardian, the federation uses the word “catastrophic” to talk about the effect of the decision to label trout as an invasive alien species.

The environment department disagrees, saying little will change. “It is pragmatic to accept that, where trout has invaded, it is largely a fait accompli.” There are too many other, more problematic, invasive species to deal with, it says. In a water-scarce country, the priority is to remove water-thirsty alien trees. It’s also really difficult to wipe out a species.

Trout will therefore be treated like the invasive pine, wattle and gum trees, where permits are required for plantations to be established. The department says permits will be issued for existing hatcheries and trout farms to continue raising and selling live trout. The department says: “There may be a few areas where local eradication may be possible, and it is accepted that this should be done if the survival of an endangered species is at stake, and if it is affordable.”

But government’s own plan for oceans and rivers — Operation Phakisa — calls for the growth of the aquaculture industry and highlights trout as a great opportunity to create jobs and products for export — especially as fish stocks in the sea are collapsing. With that in mind, the environment department says trout farms might be able to get 40-year operating permits.

The federation says there is one big problem with this; it’s already nearly impossible to get permits from the department.

READ MORE: Controversial fishing rights process leaves many stranded

The department, it says, has a record of being unable to implement its own legislation. From mining to fishing, it does not have enough people to go out and oversee its own laws and do the due diligence required to give permits. The federation argues that waiting for permits will wipe out the industry.

The department disagrees, saying it has capacity for this

It is fighting the trout gazette on a technicality; the environment department allegedly did not follow due process because it did not consult the affected parties. The federation has asked the courts to set aside the declaration, saying it was “fatally and materially defective”. It claims: “The consequences for recreational trout angling, as well as fresh water aquaculture, will be catastrophic.”

The case will be heard in January. The department says it welcomes the chance to fight a case it believes it will win.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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