two trains in reenactment of the 1869 Golden Spike ceremony
San Joaquin River

How Did Non-Native Fish Get Here?

two trains in reenactment of the 1869 Golden Spike ceremony
Image Credit: National Park Service

In the section of the San Joaquin River that runs between Fresno and Madera counties, there is a long history of non-native fish plantings dating back to the 1870s. Just five years after the “Golden Spike” was driven into the final section of track that completed the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, Dr. Livingston Stone of the U.S. Fish Commission brought the first shipment of 35,000 non-native shad fry to California over this very track in 1874.

The shad were planted in the Sacramento River, but many other rail shipments followed that introduced numerous other non-native fish species into many California lakes, rivers, streams and even San Francisco Bay over a span of 66 years. The earliest shipments were carried by specially-designed “Fish Cars” with the fish riding in open metal milk cans. The first official Fish Car was put into service in 1882 with Dr. Stone and his crew of “messengers” riding along and caring for the fish by changing water every couple of hours using the same water needed for the steam locomotives of the time.

In just a few short years, dozens of non-native fish were being systematically introduced into California and other West Coast waters. In just one example, the large-mouth black bass was so successful in reproducing in the Russian River that in 1894, the California State Fish Commission caught and relocated 9,350 of these fish to other waters not previously stocked. According to their records, the largest plantings were made in Fresh-water Lake, Humboldt County (2,000); San Joaquin River, near Herndon, Fresno County (1,000); Lake Yosemite, Merced County (1,000); Stony Lake, Humboldt County (500); Kaweah River, Tulare County (500); Garvey Lake, San Gabriel, Los Angeles County (500); Irvine Lake, Orange County (500). “Small waters” in Alameda, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, and Tulare counties also received large-mouth black bass.

A list of the most common non-native fish, clams and even lobster brought into California by the federal government and with the full cooperation of the California State Fish Commission was compiled and included in a paper published in 1895 in the Bulletin of the U.S. Fish Commission by Hugh M. Smith, M.D.:

(1) The Bullhead or Horned Pout
(2) The White Catfish
(3) The Spotted Catfish
(4) The Carp
(5) The Tench
(6) The Goldfish
(7) The Hawaiian Awa
(8) The Shad
(9) The Common Whitefish
(10) The Atlantic Salmon
(11) The Landlocked Salmon
(12) The Von Behr or European Brown Trout
(13) The Loch Leven Trout
(14) The Lake Trout or Mackinaw Trout
(15) The Brook Trout
(16) The Muskellunge
(17) The Pike or Pickerel
(18) The Eel
(19) The Crappy or Bachelor
(21) The Rook Bass
(22) The Warmouth Bass
(23) The Blue-gill or Blue Bream
(24) The Green Sunfish
(25) The Large-mouth Black Bass
(26) The Small-mouth Black Bass
(27) The Yellow Perch or Ringed Perch
(28) The Wall-eyed Pike or Pike Perch
(29) The Striped Bass or Rockfish
(30) The White Bass
(31) The Tautog
(32) The American Lobster
(33) The Eastern Oyster
(34) The Soft Clam

While the Fish Car rail shipments finally ended in 1947 – after 66 years of criss-crossing the U.S. – truck and airplane shipments of non-native fish continued and continue to this day.

Why were these non-native species brought here? It was not by accident. The motivation at the time was primarily to provide food for the growing populations in California, Oregon and Washington states. Very little thought was given to the impact these introductions would have on the native fish and aquatic life.