Fishy business 

Who pays for government blunders?

The war in Iraq has proven once again that our government can make horrific blunders. In the case of Iraq, the cost far exceeds a billion dollars a week, and Bush’s theory that Iraqi oil would pick up the tab has proven a foolish and futile fantasy. Closer to home, Montana’s state government has committed acts that, were they to be committed by a private business or a citizen, would be considered criminal. Instead of fines and prison time, government tends to weasel its way out of responsibility or retribution for such acts while the citizens, whether we want to or not, get stuck with the tab.

One such classic state agency blunder was the introduction of mysis shrimp in Flathead Lake by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, & Parks. This agency, whose duty is to protect our fisheries and wildlife, has a bad tendency to use Montana’s natural environment as a biology lab for its experiments. Planting mysis shrimp in Flathead Lake was one such experiment that has wreaked untold damage on everything from the ecology of the lake to local economies. Most Montanans know the salmon fishery has disappeared from Flathead Lake—but thanks to the government’s cover-up, almost no one knows why.

Not long ago, people flocked to Glacier National Park every fall for the internationally famous gathering of the eagles. When the days shortened and cooled, millions upon millions of Kokanee Salmon made their spawning run up the Flathead River and into Glacier. As the streams filled with salmon, hundreds of eagles came to feast upon the abundant, easy-to-harvest food.

Tourists packed the area, spending millions of dollars on rooms, meals, and supplies while cameras and tripods lined the shores. Schools sent students to this great natural classroom to watch the cycle of life in vivid action. So many salmon filled the streams that people were legally allowed to snag dozens by simply tossing out a treble hook and dragging it through the water. But those days, as anyone can tell you, are gone—perhaps forever.

What happened? How could millions of salmon suddenly disappear? The little known—and even less talked about—answer is that the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks decided it could improve upon the already fantastic salmon fishery by introducing a non-native aquatic species called the mysis shrimp. Their reasoning, if you could call it that, was that salmon would eat the tasty little shrimp and grow larger, faster. That introducing a non-native species into the ecosystem of the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi might have significant consequences apparently never occurred to the “professional managers” to whom our natural resources have been entrusted.

So they dumped in the shrimp and waited for the bigger salmon to show up. As it turned out, the shrimp eat the same food as the salmon. It also turns out that the shrimp and salmon live at different depths in the lake at different times of the day, only passing each other when the salmon go down and the shrimp go up. So, not only did the experiment not produce bigger salmon, it wiped them out completely.

Of course our government agencies, like so many of our politicians, seldom admit that they make mistakes—especially ones with such monumental consequences. So the state hatcheries continued to crank out millions of salmon, planting them for years afterwards, in an attempt to restore this once-vibrant fishery. All the dollars and all the time and all the fish were wasted. The salmon are gone—but the shrimp remain and no one yet knows what the final tally of this ill-considered agency action will be.

Millions, perhaps billions, of dollars have been lost because of one state agency, and the gathering of the eagles in Glacier National Park is just a fading memory. Had a private business or citizen caused such damage, the million-dollar lawsuits would probably still be ongoing. But the fisheries managers just shrugged off their biology experiment gone awry and the state’s anglers continue to pick up the tab for the costs of the failed efforts to restore the salmon fishery.

Now comes the sad tale of the PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) contamination of the Big Springs Hatchery at Lewistown. Last week the Department of Fish, Wildlife, & Parks, announced that it would “destroy” half a million trout because they contain toxic levels of PCB picked up from paint used to coat the hatchery’s concrete raceways more than 25 years ago.

The same paint, having flaked off over the years, has been flushed down Big Spring Creek and is in the sediments of the stream. The wild fish in this beautiful creek—one of Lewistown’s premier attractions—are now so contaminated with PCBs that “DO NOT EAT” warnings have been posted on seven miles of the stream downgradient from the hatchery.

PCBs, which were banned by Congress back in 1977, are toxic synthetic chemicals that bioaccumulate throughout the food chain, causing developmental problems in fetuses, damaging the liver, causing changes in human blood and impairing human immune systems. Plus, the only way to truly destroy PCBs is through high-temperature incineration.

Until the Department of Environmental Quality discovered the PCBs in the sediments, Fish, Wildlife & Parks was apparently completely ignorant of the problem. It is likely that this government agency has, for the last quarter-century at least, been stocking poisoned planters throughout Montana’s lakes and streams—and introducing deadly PCBs into our waters, sediments, fish, wildlife, and citizens.

Now the question is: “Who will pay to clean up this horrendous mess?”

Neither the citizens nor the anglers caused this problem, and they shouldn’t be the ones to pay. Instead, we should hold government agencies responsible for the massive blunders they create. Heads should roll and the cleanups should come out of the agency’s existing budget. Then, perhaps, they’ll get the message that such costly blunders are simply no longer acceptable.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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