Why trout?

Ed Herbst writes on the real reasons the ANC govt is going after this fish

The attempt by the Environmental Affairs Minister to justify listing trout as invasive by singling out the species for what are euphemistically called “risk assessments” is bizarre. This is not just because these “risk assessments” try to pass off prejudice as science but because only ten of the other 550 or so species that are currently listed as invasive were subjected to this process. This is apparently because the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) lacked the resources to do so for the other listed invasive species. So why trout? What is it about trout that so concerns the Minister and DEA? Why are trout deserving of all this attention? Why are the scarce resources that DEA and the Minister have at their disposal being spent on trout? Are trout that dangerous?

The DEA claims that they are - but as Neels Blom observed in Business Day on 4/6/2018 …

‘The department did well, too, by attempting to prove its assumptions about trout by citing its assumptions about trout. This fallacy deserves high praise alongside its obtuse denial of the trout value chain.’

There is in truth no ecological threat that justifies trout being listed as invasive as I shall later show. But this is not really about trout. It is about the ANC’s obsession with control. It is about government gaining direct permitting control over all biological resources and trout are a valuable biological resource.

Neither the DEA nor the Minister cares much about the damage that they do in achieving this. It does not matter to them if governance collapses or if the economy suffers. This is notwithstanding President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledging that our Beloved Country had been brought to the point of governmental collapse during the Zuma era.

This is compounded by the usual arrogance, incompetence and contempt for the rule of law that characterises much of what DEA does. The Minister’s attempts, spurred on by her officials, to declare trout invasive is another example of this much bigger problem.

The Minister has acknowledged in a rather mealy-mouthed way - (see here) - that she has not followed proper process in this regard and needs, in effect, to start again.

Among several responses to her latest attempt to damage the trout value chain, two are as extensive as they are trenchant – one from Ian Cox a Durban lawyer and one written by his colleague Ilan Lax on behalf of the Federation of Southern African Flyfishers (FOSAF) the umbrella body which lobbies on behalf of fly anglers and their environmental concerns.

Fatally defective

The Minister has acknowledged the merits of these complaints by publishing a third notice that seeks to correct the flaws that rendered the first two attempts fatally defective. However, as Cox points out, this third attempt is still fatally defective and will also be challenged.

So the ‘war’, is far from over. But this ‘war’ on trout cannot be seen in isolation. It is part of a wider campaign in government to deploy environmental laws in an attempt to place access to and the right to use natural and biological resources under direct state licencing control.

Once this has been achieved - and the process is already well advanced - it will be a criminal offence to possess or use any natural or biological resources or any product derived from biological resources without a licence or exemption granted by government.

A manifestation of this is the Aquaculture Development Bill that has just been approved by cabinet. It will make it a criminal offence for anyone to engage in aquaculture or the subsequent processing of products derived from aquaculture without a licence issued by government. Thus, if this process is successful, government will become a rent-seeking operation where citizens ultimately work as labour tenants of government and corruption will be legalised.

This has to be seen in conjunction with Expropriation Without Compensation and Radical Economic Transformation and moves such as those contained in the KZN Business Bill which will make it a criminal offence for anyone to carry on any business (as in commercial enterprise) without a licence issued by government.

There is also the draft BBBEE guideline recently published by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries which will make an applicant’s BBBEE status central to the grant of any of the many permits that are required to lawfully engage in certain agricultural activities.

Duncan Brown, in his book Are Trout South African? calls the trout a ‘scape fish’ which is blamed for a variety of ecological ills. It is also denigrated with the epithet ‘colonial’ despite the fact that the brown trout is native to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and the rainbow trout is native to the USA which, to the best of my recollection, never tried to colonise Africa.

It is also decried as ‘elitist’ by those who are only too happy to drop a million rand – your money and mine – on cars from colonising countries such as Germany and Britain. All this while the poor die in pit latrines a quarter of a century after we became a universal franchise democracy.

The fact is that trout fail hopelessly as an invasive fish in South Africa, in part because it needs, low turbidity water, saturated in oxygen at 21oC or less. This restricts its possible distribution range to a tiny part of South Africa’s river system.

Trout are vulnerable even where these water conditions exist. Sydney Hey, author of the classic Rapture of the River found this out in the 1920s when he was employed by the colonial government to stock trout in suitable streams and rivers. Many of his attempts to do so failed, particularly in the Western Cape and along the Garden Route. The trout he stocked into these areas often only survived for a single generation. Sydney’s son, Douglas, who later became DG of Nature Conservation in the Western Cape, provided the explanation in his doctoral thesis. Trout cannot breed in streams with a heavy tannin content. This is because these tannins cover the eggs with a colloidal coating which smothers them.

Major canards

One of the major canards propagated by the anti-trout lobby is that it has or will extirpate our indigenous minnow species. There is no evidence to support this contention.

Many visitors to this website will have seen a plaque next to the Liesbeek stream in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden testifying to one of its inhabitants, the Galaxius zebratus minnow.

Fly anglers stocked the Liesbeek with trout decades ago in the hope of providing urban fly fishing in Cape Town but soon gave up as the trout were unable to breed successfully because of the stream’s high tannin content. There was another reason why the tiny Galaxius minnow thrived and this was revealed in a fascinating Bobby Jordan article in the Sunday Times recently. Quoting the Freshwater Research Centre, Jordan reveals that even when the stream dries up completely, the Galaxius survives.

‘The Cape galaxias, a “relic fish” whose ancestors populated the super-continent of Gondwanaland that split apart millions of years ago, has a mysterious habit of repopulating dry river beds, seemingly out of thin air.

‘Turns out the wily fish may survive dry spells by insulating itself in underground water bubbles – a technique observed in some other fish and aquatic invertebrate species, according to a team of freshwater scientists studying Cape rivers.’

But wait, there’s more.

Trout in streams and rivers change from eating insects, aquatic and terrestrial, which are drifting in the current, to eating fish when they reach approximately a kilo in weight. The majority of trout in our river systems do not, however, reach that size. Which might account for the fact that a hitherto unknown minnow, Pseudobarbus skeltoni – the Giant Redfin – has recently been found in the Breede River system, where it has co-existed with trout for the past 125 years.

No minnows

Fly anglers have been aware of this situation for years. In the mid-1940s, the late Bob Crass, who was the chief scientific officer for the Natal Parks Board for decades, examined the stomach contents of 236 trout caught in local trout streams. The resulting paper, ‘A preliminary report on the food of trout in Natal’ was published in September 1946 and revealed that he found no minnows in these trout.

But wait, there’s still more.

Around the same time, Dr Vernon van Someron started a three-year study which produced his doctoral thesis Trout in the Kenya Colony. His examination of the stomachs of 489 trout mirrored the findings of Bob Crass – no minnows.

Furthermore, in 1986, Monde Mayekeso and Ken Willian from the Zoology Department at Fort Hare conducted a study on the Kliplaat River near Hogsback in the Amatole Mountains of the Eastern Cape.

The survey of 19 sites along the river took 12 days and a specific intention of the study was to ascertain what the impact of trout was on indigenous Barbus minnows (Barbs).

The stomach contents of 17 trout were analysed.

‘The stomach contents of the trout were revealing: the most common prey items were Odonata and Notonectidae nymphs and small crabs (Potomon sidneyi). The stomach contents of the largest trout included 14 nymphs and five crabs. Barbs were not included in the stomach contents.

‘Barbs were comparatively abundant along the entire river, occurring in stickles, shallow runs and small pools.’

So much for the trout as a frightening predator eliminating our indigenous fish species.

The definitive study in this regard can be found in ‘The effects of reduction in trout density on the Invertebrate Community of a Mountain Stream by J D Allen (Ecology 63 1982). Allen, over a period of four successive years, removed 75-90 percent of the brook trout in a high-altitude stream in Colorado. He found that removing the trout had no measurable impact on the total number of aquatic insects, nor did it affect the numbers of the four groups of prey that trout ate most.

Trout, like all other species, do not eat themselves into extinction.

The DEA nevertheless claims that trout threaten the Maloti Minnow despite the fact that the Maloti Minnow, Pseudobarbus quathlambae, co-exists alongside trout in Lesotho. However as Ian Cox and Andrew Mather have pointed out in an article in Flyfishing magazine, it turns out that the Maloti Minnow is alien to South Africa and that it is in fact the native yellowfish that most threatens the Maloti Minnow in Lesotho.

Habitat destruction

The greatest threat to our indigenous fish is habitat destruction and one only has to look at the impact that the pollution in the Vaal River is having on its aquatic ecosystem to grasp the gravity of the situation.

What the anti-trout lobby would like you to forget is that it is bass that were introduced some 70 years ago, rather than trout that threaten indigenous fish species in rivers. It grows to a bigger size than trout, eats larger prey than trout do and exists in a water temperature range occupied by the majority of our indigenous fish species.

But DEA would like you to believe that trout are a more serious problem than bass. This is why they say that trout need to be listed as invasive on terms that are more stringent than those that apply to bass.

Trout are not an ecological threat in South Africa. The threat to our freshwater fish species is not just an alien one. Apart from the indigenous yellowfish that predate on the Maloti Minnow in Lesotho, South Africa’s freshwater fish species face an even greater threat from translocated sharptooth catfish, Clarias gariepinus (barbel). This was highlighted in a 2003 paper in the African Journal of Aquatic Science by Dr Jim Cambray of Rhodes University.

In the paper ‘The need of research and monitoring of the impacts of translocated sharptooth catfish, Clarias gariepinus, in South Africa’, Cambray outlines how the barbel colonised the Great Fish River and its water systems in the Eastern Cape – where it had not occurred before – after the Orange River was connected to the Great Fish River through the Orange-Fish River tunnel in 1975.

The barbel is an exceptional predator on other fish species – infinitely more so than trout, yellowfish or even bass. It easily reaches 25 kgs in weight, can survive without water through its lung system and, in breeding season, travels overland after rains.

It has also invaded the Breede River and other systems in the Western Cape – where it did not occur before - after a dam broke at the Jonkershoek experimental station at Cape Nature’s headquarters near Stellenbosch and the barbel in the dam escaped into the Eerste River.

To reach 25 kg, a barbel needs to eat other fish, indigenous and alien, and lot of them and its impact on smaller indigenous fish species in the Great Fish and Breede River systems will have been significant.

The Minister wants to list barbel as invasive across the entire country. This is despite the fact that barbel are indigenous to South Africa and cannot be therefore be listed as invasive throughout SA on this basis. So why is she making this attempt?

Lucrative value chains

Barbel and trout both drive important and potentially lucrative value chains that extend way beyond recreational angling. Barbel is an important aquaculture species. This is also true of trout. Trout, in addition, drive a large fly fishing tourism sector that accounts for 5% of KwaZulu-Natal’s total tourism revenues and probably much more in Mpumalanga. This is over and above the considerable investment that trout anglers make in their fishery through property acquisition and stocking dams and a few streams with trout.

The Minister and DEA want government to control these value chains which is probably why they are targeting trout and barbel as well as tilapia - which are already listed as invasive - and are less interested in other species.

Compliance with government control is very costly and these additional costs often destroy the narrow margins that these value chains rely on in order to survive. We are seeing this playing out across the country. The trout value chain is not immune to this threat. It will not survive what the Minister is trying to do. Its collapse will bring fresh water aquaculture down with it.

Thanks to the ANC’s disastrous governance, our rural towns and villages are already close to collapse. As I pointed out in a previous article on this website, trout aquaculture and the availability of angling for them provides an important source of employment and income in high-altitude rural areas. If these trout-based commercial enterprises go to the wall because of government interference, it will only make things worse for our poorer communities.

Sadly it does not seem that this will deter the Minister or DEA from pressing ahead with their war on trout or government from trying to reduce South Africans to being the labour tenants of an avaricious and incompetent state.