Saving Fish by Shocking Fish

“There are supposed to be fish in there?" I remember asking incredulously as we arrived at Badger Creek. Usually, our task is to bushwhack to a remote stream to analyze its trout population. However, this morning, our task was a little different.  We drove towards Badger Creek where we heard there was a puddle, not much larger than a queen size bed, where fish were struggling.  In this environment, with shallow waters, high temperatures and too little oxygen for vegetation, we could not imagine we would have much luck finding fish.  Any fish in there would surely be dead. Despite our intuition, we did what we were told and used the electro-fisher to figure out if there were any survivors.

The probe of the electro-fisher barely touched the water and out sprang up 10 beautiful cutthroat trout.  The sight of so many cutthroat sent chills down my spine.  At first, I was not sure whether it was a result of seeing so many cutthroat in one place, the shock of finding so many fish on the brink of death, or maybe some combination of the two that led to my mixed emotions.  I began to think about the overall purpose of my research this summer compared to studies I have worked on in the past.  This summer is the first time I have been doing research on animals that cannot consent to our procedures.  I understand the overall benefits of stunning, burning, and occasionally killing fish when it leads us to understand more about how we can protect them, but without seeing immediate progress from our research, it is hard to keep this big picture idea in mind during the electro-fishing process.  However, in this moment there was real time progress and results. I could physically see that these fish would not have survived long in the environment they were in, and by temporarily hurting the fish; we were saving their lives. Additionally, knowing that these fish were native cutthroat added to my amazement. Now that I have learned so much about the importance of sustaining the population of native, wild fish, I have developed an appreciation of cutthroat trout over other trout. Even though these fish are no prettier nor smarter than brook or rainbow trout, understanding their significance in the ecosystem has led me to like them more. I have learned that the more knowledge you have about each animal, plant, and ecosystem, the more you can appreciate, love, and ethically treat your surrounding environment.

We spent the next hour sticking the probe in, netting the fish that arose, and carrying them to a place upstream where they could flourish. The puddle was completely emptied of the cutthroat. In total, we probably moved about 30 fish upstream, with only a few fatalities in the process.  After we finished, I realized that while this is the only time electro-fishing has given me instant gratification, the pain we cause the fish in the moment can lead to more benefits than saving thirty fish. Our hiking, sweat, and hard labor enables researchers to understand how the ecosystems in the Teton watershed have changed over the past five years and therefore informs future fishing decisions.  I am excited to continue working on this project and see what kind of results can come from this population study.