Goodbye trout?

South Africa’s proposed legislation for alien and invasive species claims to minimise damage to biodiversity by all alien species. But the trout fishing industry believes it’s being unfairly targeted.

Rainbow and brown trout were introduced to South Africa’s rivers and streams more than a century ago. Today they form the basis of a fly-fishing industry worth an estimated R3,5-billion. However, the second draft of the Alien and Invasive Species Regulations, published by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in April 2009, classifies trout as alien invasive species.

The Bill groups alien species into three main categories. There are no restrictions for exempt aliens (eg, goldfish) and no permissions for prohibited aliens (eg, snakeheads). Invasive aliens, however, are subject to different types of control. Trout have been placed in a subcategory ‘controlled by area’. This will allow people to fish (including catch and release), farm, breed and stock them, but only within designated zones. Other valuable sport fish such as carp, barbel and bass are in the same subcategory.

Rainbow and brown trout are listed by the IUCN Invasive Species Specialist Group among the world’s 100 worst invasive aliens. Yet, according to Leonard Flemming, Western Cape chairman of the Fly Fishing Federation of South Africa (FOSAF), most of South Africa’s fly-fishing fraternity believes trout should be classified as an exempt species.

‘Trout is naturalised here,’ says PJ Jacobs, editor of The Complete Fly Fisherman. ‘It’s in equilibrium and poses no threat to any indigenous species where it currently occurs.’ He says trout’s range is limited in South Africa and that they effectively zone themselves. ‘Bass and carp areas continue to grow, but trout’s territory is shrinking,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t stand for having trout introduced in new areas, but trout should be protected everywhere they currently occur.’

An invasive species can be defined as having a self-perpetuating population that causes ecological harm. ‘We have to stock our waters with trout every year because they don’t breed,’ said Alan Hobson of the Angler and Antelope in Somerset East, ‘so they can’t be invasive here.’ Johan van Jaarsveld of Eastern Cape Fly Fishing agrees: ‘Trout are being targeted because they’re easy to get rid of.’ But Dr Ernst Swartz of the South African Institute of Aquatic Biology says there are still many rivers where trout populations could establish.

‘In some cases, trout might not be able to move themselves, but they can be invasive through human activity,’ says Swartz, who heads up the mapping team contracted to draw up the alien fish zones. They’re using data from the National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Areas project to exclude important biodiversity areas, but are also working closely with the fly-fishing industry to understand where their prime fishing areas are. Swartz says by far the majority of these will be inside the zones. ‘It’s pretty much status quo unless there are critical biodiversity issues,’ said Swartz.

Jacobs is sceptical and believes the mapping process is being approached the wrong way round. ‘Areas that are ecologically sensitive should be zoned out of having any alien species,’ he says. Van Jaarsveld agrees. ‘Rather zone trout out than in. It’s much easier to police and doesn’t limit growth of the industry.’ The problem with this approach is that new biodiversity areas are continually being discovered. The maps will need to be reviewed annually and Van Jaarsveld is concerned trout zones might be made smaller. ‘They could strangle us,’ he says.

Flemming is more optimistic. ‘This may sound contradictory, but trout fishing could benefit in the long run – if the fly-fishing fraternity and conservation bodies are willing to engage in a positive way.’ Swartz points out that the trout industry has been operating in a legal vacuum since the 1980s, when legislation protecting trout was removed. ‘For the first time, the law will allow the guys to run legitimate fisheries,’ he says. ‘It’s on a map and recognised.’

Swartz and Flemming both believe misinformation is at the heart of the dispute. ‘When we’ve sat around the same table, there’s been very little controversy,’ says Swartz.

‘The trout industry needs to engage with this process,’ says Cape Nature fish scientist Dean Impson. ‘If there are prime fishing waters we aren’t aware of, tell us.’ Since the primary concern is protecting biodiversity, however, Impson acknowledges that there are bound to be some conflicts and a need for compromise. ‘We’re looking at trout zones inside some World Heritage Sites and nature reserves,’ he says. ‘Now that’s compromise!’

Originally published in Getaway Magazine, August 2009

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