Why you should care
Francis James Mitchell was part of an “acclimatization” movement that sent exotic species to distant lands.
Francis James Mitchell was enjoying a round of golf at his beloved St. Andrews when the Scotsman received a telegram that changed his life — and the gorgeous snowmelt rivers in far-off Kashmir. Ever the gentleman, he waited until the 18th hole before announcing to his playing partners that he had lost every penny on an investment in South African gold mines.
Mitchell placed his sons, ages 3 and 5, in a charitable institution and then joined his brothers in their carpet business in Kashmir at the northern tip of the Indian subcontinent. His wife died before he left Scotland in 1899, but he proceeded with his plans. Not long after settling into his new occupation and new home, he invented a dye “of great value to the carpet industry,” writes younger son Richard in The Story of Mitchell’s.
An enthusiastic angler as well as golfer, Mitchell talked the maharajah of Kashmir into letting him stock the valley’s streams with brown trout. Back in England, he transferred his sons to better schools and then arranged with the Duke of Bedford for 10,000 trout ova to be sent to India. (The duke had been gifted Kashmir stags and wanted to reciprocate.)
The fish eggs perished en route. Undaunted, Mitchell returned to England and arranged for a second shipment of ova that he personally chaperoned to Kashmir. By 1905, trout swam in “every stream of this beautiful valley,” writes Richard Mitchell, and the maharajah bestowed on Mitchell Sr. the title “honorary director of trout culture.”
Mitchell’s efforts in Kashmir were part of a global movement that coincided with the advent of oceangoing steamships and a method to transport trout ova “on moss embedded in ice,” says Ed Herbst, a veteran South African journalist and lifelong fly fisherman. Starting in the mid-19th century, a host of “acclimatization societies” had sprung up with a twofold mission: Showcase plants and animals from far-off lands and introduce “plants and animals from the home country to wherever the colonial outposts were located,” writes Paul Schullery in a 2005 piece titled “Imperialist Trout” on the website MidCurrent.
The best-known acclimatization societies were in Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand, where trout were introduced in the 1860s (of the main sport species, rainbows are native to western North America; browns to Europe). But in the 19th and 20th centuries, trout fingerlings were released into just about every place where they could possibly survive — and many where a coldwater fish didn’t have a chance, including Cuba and Indonesia.
Acclimatization societies also shipped pheasants, squirrels, livestock, fruits, vegetables and grains all over the globe. In some cases, the impact was disastrous (rabbits in Australia; opossums in New Zealand). In others the results were comical — zebra ranching, anyone?
Trout are one of acclimatization’s biggest success stories. As a member of the august Cape Piscatorial Society since before I could vote, I’ve caught nonnative rainbows and browns in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, England, Scotland, Kashmir, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. New Zealand — an archipelago more perfectly suited to trout than its native habitats — remains at the top of my bucket list.
Trout, which have been bred for food since medieval times, offer far more than sporting value. In the 20th century, hatcheries were established in regions with cool climates throughout the world with the primary goal of feeding people. The invention of granulated feed in the 1950s revolutionized global aquaculture and production of trout soared — in 2018, it stood at nearly 1 billion metric tons, with Chile, Iran and Turkey the biggest producers.
Trout, which have been bred for food since medieval times, offer far more than sporting value.
That said, one person’s weekend sport — or next meal — is another’s big bad wolf. Anti-trout lobbies led by conservationists concerned with preserving indigenous aquatic habitats exist in all countries where trout have been imported — although Herbst doesn’t think “anyone listens to them in New Zealand and Patagonia,” where trout fishing brings hundreds of millions of dollars in tourist revenue.
In the U.S., nonnative rainbows are being removed from some waters, but they remain the most commonly stocked fish in the country, notes Anders Halverson in An Entirely Synthetic Fish. There’s a similar paradox in Australia, where trout “have been so successfully and so pervasively introduced,” writes Susan Lawler, an ecology professor at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, “that most people now think that they are native” — despite the negative impact they have had on indigenous frogs, fishes and plants.
In my native South Africa, the debate has taken on a political hue with the anti-trout brigade aligning itself with a wider anti-colonial sentiment. Ecologically minded fishermen like Herbst feel trout is being used as what Duncan Brown terms a “scape fish” in his book Are Trout South African? — that is, a symbol of Britishness. Conveniently ignored, says Herbst, is the lack of evidence “that trout have destroyed indigenous minnow systems,” while highly damaging alien fish like carp and bass are spared the political flak.
Our man in Kashmir, Francis James Mitchell, probably would be bemused by such arguments. But he’d be delighted to know that the (exotic) fruit-farming business he established in 1933 has gone from strength to strength since a Pakistani outfit bought it in 1959. The fact that Kashmir has recently started exporting trout back to the U.K. might just be too thrilling for his spirit to bear.