Utah's Fish Culture on Wild About Utah

Feb 3, 2017

On May 12, 1871, Albert Perry Rockwood, the recently appointed Territorial Fish Superintendent of Utah, arrived at Silver Creek, a small tributary of the Weber River near present-day Rockport Reservoir. After setting up camp, Rockwood went to work catching native Bonneville cutthroat trout, which he placed in crates and milk cartons and loaded on wagons bound for Salt Lake City. 

This was no vacation. Rockwood was on official business on behalf of Brigham Young and the newly created Zion’s Cooperative Fish Association, Utah’s first fish-culture company. Rockwood’s mission was to transport as many live cutthroat as possible to rearing ponds in Salt Lake City, get them to spawn, then put the fry in Utah Lake. The project didn’t go as planned. Many of the fish died from lack of oxygen in the cramped storing crates, the bigger fish ate the smaller fish, and the cutthroat that made it into the rearing ponds alive wouldn’t spawn.

Although Rockwood didn’t have much success farming native trout, his subsequent efforts with fish stocking yielded fruit. After some consideration, he decided that the answer to Utah’s declining trout populations was not to replace dying native trout with more native trout, but rather import exotic fish species and let them fill in. It helped that he had the support of the Mormon Church, which funded his fish stocking escapades through Zion’s Cooperative Fish Association. Over the pulpit, Mormon leaders encouraged members to do their part and declared fish “to possess brain making material to a greater extent than any other animal food.” They even went so far as to approve the use of prison inmates to build fish ponds near what is today Sugarhouse Park.

During his time as Territorial Fish Superintendent, Rockwood experimented with American shad, black bullhead catfish, king salmon, Sebago salmon, eastern brook trout, lake whitefish, lobsters, oysters, American eel, Asian carp and a host of other species. Many of the exotics came from Rockwood’s east coast friends, including the biblical looking Seth Green and pragmatic Spencer Fullerton Baird, Director of the newly created U.S. Fish Commission. Today we might think some of Rockwood’s experiments cruel, like the time he attempted to farm lobsters and oysters in the Great Salt Lake, but at the time it was cutting edge fish culture.

On the surface it is obvious Rockwood was attempting to improve Utah’s fisheries, whatever that may have looked like at the time. However, if you look closer you can also see a man trying to make Utah into something more familiar. Historians have long established that throughout the American West, settlers introduced nonnative plants, animals, and fishes in an attempt to make the foreign and wild landscape into something domestic and manageable. It’s not surprising, then, that Rockwood, an East Coast transplant from Massachusetts, would bring to Utah many of the fish he had caught back home. Rivers and lakes were laboratories, not ecosystems, and in the end, if a fish survived, Rockwood believed it meant God wanted it there.

Today, in a twist of irony, our values have moved toward valuing natives over nonnatives, and we’re trying to quickly undo what Rockwood and others did. For example, millions of dollars are being spent to remove carp from Utah Lake and restore Bonneville cutthroat to the tributaries of the Weber River, those same tributaries where Rockwood camped and caught trout 145 years ago. I think we are doing right by the world, but in his time, so did Albert Perry Rockwood. And in case you’re wondering, Rockwood eventually solved the mystery of the cutthroat trout that would not spawn. In his notes he wrote: “I was on the headwaters before the females arrived, consequently, caught nothing but male fish…This solves the problem, why my trout did not spawn…”