Defending ‘Rough Fish’

by Andrew L. Rypel

Mountain Sucker, Catostomus platyrhynchus captured from Pelican Creek, Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Harlan Kredit, downloaded from

Have any of you ever reached a tipping point with some topic, issue, or bone-to-pick? Well, one benefit of being a tenured professor is the ability to speak up when you feel like the science or data call for it. And so, after many years of silent stewing, I finally decided to pipe up on the following topic, alongside a great team of colleagues. The team was made up of people who very much feel the same way and recognize these issues. They also represent a diverse slice of career stages, personal and educational backgrounds, and geography, which I feel added great perspective to the effort.

Cover of the newly released issue of Fisheries Magazine, featuring an Alligator Gar, photo by paper coauthor Dr. Solomon R. David

In our recent paper, “Goodbye to “rough fish”: paradigm shift in the conservation of native fishes”, we trace an ugly history in one of my beloved fields of research – fisheries science and management. The paper describes how many species preferred by European settlers were labeled as ‘sport’ or ‘game’ fish, while scores of native fishes, many with great ecological value or socioecological value among Black and Indigenous People of Color were ignored or actively removed from ecosystems by generations of fisheries professionals.

I’ve been asked by a few reporters, and even a few scientists, why we wrote the paper. And for me, the short answer is that it was personal. I initially got into this gig because I fell in love with fishes and fishing as a kid. When I was 12, I bought a book at a garage sale: Fishing for Buffalo: A Guide to the Pursuit, Lore and Cuisine of Buffalo, Carp, Mooneye, Gar and Other “Rough Fish. It’s rare that a book changes your life, but this one did for me. The entire book was devoted to pursuing, appreciating and understanding fish species commonly referred to as ‘rough fish’ (a pejorative ascribing little or no value to scads of native fishes). I had heard of some of these fishes, but had not seen many up close and personal. I recall being intrigued and confused by how fishes viewed as ‘ugly’, ‘trash’, ‘rough’ or ‘coarse’ by some, could simultaneously be considered beautiful, glorious, and worthy of pursuit and conservation by others. And so throughout my teens, I began trying to catch and learn about many of the common ‘rough fish’ species surrounding me – bowfin, river redhorse, gars, carpsuckers, suckers, bullheads, buffalo, and so on. I also began learning about fish diversity and the many problems facing native fishes around the world. Little did I know at the time, I would eventually devote much of my career to this topic.

As I entered into fisheries ecology as a career, I also began to see first hand just how little management occurred for countless native fishes. In some cases, it seemed like total malpractice, but amazingly many problems persist today. Our paper summarizes how species classified as ‘rough fish’ continue to have unlimited daily bag limits in most states. This means that fishers can catch and keep as many fish as they want, every day, and it’s 100% legal. There are also few-to-no possession limits, which means that fishers can stockpile as many fillets and numbers of these fishes in their home freezers as they like. Or, because there are no wanton waste laws, just catch and discard these fishes on the bank for no reason. In one particularly egregious example, bigmouth buffalo were recently estimated to obtain ages of at least 112 years old (Lackmann et al. 2019), making them the longest-lived freshwater teleost (bony fish) known on Earth. Yet bag limits for bigmouth buffalo remain almost uniformly ‘unlimited’. Meanwhile ‘game fish’ species like bass, trout and walleye often have highly restrictive bag limits aimed at sustainable management. They also, almost always, have possession limits – typically 2x the daily bag limit.

Summary of rough fish regulations across the USA.

To round out this conversation, here are some cold hard facts on the status of our freshwater fish biodiversity on Earth, and in California. These species are declining rapidly. ~50% of all freshwater fishes on Earth are considered threatened or in decline. In CA, roughly 83% of our native and highly endemic fish fauna are now in some form of decline (Moyle et al. 2011). There’s a good chance that delta smelt will become extinct in the wild this year or next. Winter-run Chinook salmon could be close behind them. Many other native fishes face listing under the ESA in coming years. The bulk of our native species remain quite poorly studied; so their conservation status is at best unclear, but likely in sharp decline. It is hard to argue that we are doing enough to protect freshwater fish diversity. Rather, it seems clear that prevailing methods of freshwater fisheries management have not succeeded in protecting the vast majority of freshwater species. How did we get here?

If the last year taught us anything, it is that we must push back on systems that historically excluded and oppressed others. It can be exceedingly difficult to admit or become aware that your field, or perhaps even your own actions, have contributed to historical exclusion. But it is obviously much more crippling to have been those excluded in the first place. So, here’s the tough, unvarnished truth. Fisheries science and management has been dominated by perspectives from European and white males. This isn’t placing blame on folks today because of gender and race, but the history is real, beginning for example with a long string of white male presidents of the American Fisheries Society. And so over time, high management values were ascribed to species preferred by European and white males and these perspectives have shaped the field of fisheries. Meanwhile, native species classified as ‘rough fish’ often held esteem among immigrant communities, and Black and Indigenous People of Color, but were roundly ignored in most management strategies and plans. 

One of our coauthors, Dr. Larry Nesper is an Indigenous scholar and assembled some perspectives and testimonials from tribal communities in northern Wisconsin for the paper. Here is one such quote:

Namebini-giizis names the month of February the “Sucker Moon” because the noble suckerfish sacrificed their lives to feed the Ojibwe people. Yet during negotiations with the state, members of one of the Ojibwe communities were teased about their alleged preference for suckers.”

The time has arrived for new and fresh paradigms in fisheries that are more inclusive. To do this we can recognize that: 

  • Native species deliver critical ecosystem services.
  • Little evidence exists that native fish removals ever deliver intended benefits.
  • Many native fishes are long-lived & vulnerable to overfishing.
  • Values and demographics of anglers are shifting towards protecting native fishes. 

Anglers of tomorrow are younger, more diverse, and care about protecting all fishes and their ecosystems. Microfishing is an example of how new anglers are appreciating all species through keeping life lists of fishes, much like bird enthusiasts. These generational changes are poised to fundamentally improve natural resource management. Here are some specific suggestions from our paper on how to improve fisheries for future generations more quickly:

1) Stop saying ‘rough fish’, ‘trash fish’, ‘junk fish’ etc. They are pejoratives (towards people) that we don’t need. These terms can be replaced with alternative terms. Maybe just “native fishes”.

2) Build complimentary ethics of Indigenous knowledge coexistence. Here is an excellent new paper outlining some examples of how to do this (Reid et al. 2021).

3) Revisit bag limits. Consider lowering bag limits for native species until science confirms higher bag limits are actually sustainable.

Cumulative number of scientific studies in journals of the American Fisheries Society focusing on various ‘game fish’ and ‘rough fish’ species. ‘Rough fish escapees” refers to species previously classified as ‘rough fish’, but in general now receive some protective status.

4) Support science on native species. We estimate ‘gamefish’ receive 11x more research attention than native fishes. In an important and related study Guy et al. 2021 estimated that just 3% peer-reviewed fisheries articles were on critically endangered fishes; 82% of critically endangered fishes had zero articles published on them.

5) Co-manage species/taxa that co-evolved, like native freshwater mussels whose life cycles depend on robust populations of specific native fishes. 72% of North American mussels are imperiled. Yet ESA laws don’t currently protect the host fishes of mussels. Why would we overfish host species of federally endangered mussels? This makes no sense. Check out this recent blog to learn more about the loss of mussels in North America and California.

6) Correct misinformation and enhance science education through outreach and education for all ages. It is hard to correct all misinformation; however agencies and other trusted institutions are in proper positions to articulate accurate and science-based content to guide public discourse.

7) Consider adopting wanton waste laws. Wanton waste laws would make it illegal to engage in massive “glory kills” where large numbers of native fishes are killed and discarded, often after just a photo is taken. Such laws have been highly successful in wildlife conservation at curbing unnecessary kills, and fisheries conservation could easily create parallel laws to protect vulnerable fisheries.

Reactions to our paper have been…interesting. Several politically-charged news sites have featured the work. Some outlets employed salacious headlines like ‘calling fish trash is white supremacy’, or my personal favorite, a scrolling marquee on a cable news outlet titled: ‘woke fish!’. It appears that the element of the work that captured attention was linking contemporary fisheries policy to an exclusionary past. These sites grossly misrepresented the work. As just one example, we never state that ‘calling fish trash is white supremacy’. In fact, ‘white supremacy’ is never mentioned once. But we do highlight and describe an exclusionary history of our field and how it continues to shape contemporary fisheries policies. And we therefore ask a basic question: Given all that we know about fish ecology and management and the history of our field, and challenges for the future, should we continue managing fisheries the same way as we did 100 years ago? We suggest not.

The Razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus) is a federally endangered species endemic to the Colorado River basin. Before ESA listing, Razorback Suckers were frequently considered ‘rough fish’, and there were large poisoning operations aimed at killing native fishes. Most notorious was the 1962 attempt to poison 715 km of the Green River in WY, UT, and CO. The species is now being raised for conservation purposes at the Ouray National Fish Hatchery in Grand Junction, CO. Photo source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Further reading

The end of trash fish

Suckers, trash fish and the fight over food traditions in Oregon’s Klamath Basin

Why do we value some fish more than others? It’s time to reconsider “rough” fish

Fish scientist with St. Croix River roots seeks to restore respect for “rough fish”

Why some fish are ‘junk’ and others are protected

DNR pushes for new respect of Minnesota’s rough fish

Trashed fish: Science for gar, buffalo targeted by bowfishing long overdue

David, S.R. Introduction to a special section: angling for dinosaurs—status and future study of the ecology, conservation, and management of ancient fishes. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 147: 623-625.

Nesper L. 2002. The Walleye war: the struggle for Ojibwe spearfishing and treaty rights. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln NE USA. 

Reid, A.J., L.E. Eckert, J. F. Lane, N. Young, S.G. Hinch, C.T. Darimont, S.J. Cooke, N.C. Ban, and A. Marshall. 2020. “Two-Eyed Seeing”: an Indigenous framework to transform fisheries research and management. Fish and Fisheries 22: 243– 261. 

Rypel, A.L., P. Saffarinia, C.C. Vaughn, L. Nesper, K. O’Reilly, C.A. Parisek, M.L. Miller, P.B. Moyle, N.A. Fangue, M. Bell-Tilcock, D. Ayers, and S.R. David. 2021. Goodbye to “rough fish”: paradigm shift in the conservation of native fishes. Fisheries 46 605-616.

Scarnecchia, D.L. 1992. A reappraisal of gars and Bowfins in fishery management. Fisheries 17(5):6– 12.

Scarnecchia, D.L., and J.D. Schooley. 2020. Bowfishing in the United States: history, status, ecological impact, and a need for management. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science 123:285– 338.

Scarnecchia, D.L., J.D. Schooley, A.R. Lackman, S.J. Rider, D.K. Rieke, J. McMullin, J.E. Ganus, K.D. Steffensen, N.W. Kramer, and Z.R. Shattuck. 2021. The sport fish restoration program as a funding source to manage and monitor bowfishing and monitor inland commercial fisheries. Fisheries 46: 595-604.

About Andrew Rypel

Andrew L. Rypel is a Professor and the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Chair of coldwater fish ecology at the University of California, Davis. He is a faculty member in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology and Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.
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5 Responses to Defending ‘Rough Fish’

  1. Jai Rho says:

    Very informative. It would also be interesting to learn the effects of climate change and water management on native fish species, particularly any keystone species, and how we might mitigate or improve such effects on these species.

  2. Kimberly Weber says:

    Thank you for this very interesting piece! It was a surprising and pleasurable read, full of lots of resources for the reader to explore. I personally really appreciate feeling the need to speak up! Had no idea rivers used to be poisoned.

  3. Chris M. says:

    Awesome blog! As ush. The decline of buffalo in many waterways has worried me for sometime. They appear to be targeted by commercial fishing operations in addition to the bowfishing.

  4. Hal R. says:

    Two summers ago at Scout camp, trout and suckers were caught. The suckers were much better table fare than the stocked rainbows. For years I was told that suckers were trash fish. It is far from the truth. For the rest of the week, Scouts got more excited about a sucker over a rainbow. Maybe the change is closer than we think.

  5. T Church says:

    Great read, thank you for writing this. I appreciate the perspective.

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