Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

While enjoying the peaceful serenity of wilderness lakes, Felice Pace, a fishermen from Klamath Glen, said there have been several times when low-flying airplanes "bombed" the lakes with hundreds of fish - a means of stocking used by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"I've caught fish in these lakes with giant heads and tiny bodies - that indicates overstocking," Pace said in an email, adding that he has seen hundreds of these fish die and wash up on shores. "Being at a lake which is bombed by low-flying airplanes does not enhance one's wilderness experience; fishing at an overstocked lake is not a good fishing experience."

Frustrated with the state's stocking practices in lakes in Del Norte, Humboldt and Lake counties, Pace and Wilderness Watch, an environmental organization based in Missoula, Mont., sued the California Department of Fish and Wildlife late last year. The suit alleged that the stocking of fish in lakes, including some in federally designated wilderness areas, without a permit constituted an illegal discharge under the Clean Water Act.

Last week, U.S. District Judge William Orrick granted the state's motion to dismiss the case, basing his decision on case law and the failure of the plaintiffs to state a claim.

"In an era where some prefer to litigate instead of pursue decision-making through the public process, I'm encouraged about this legal victory," said CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham in a statement. "Though we expect an appeal that could jeopardize our legacy statewide fish stocking program, it's a big win for today."

The lawsuit argued that the stocked fish, sometimes non-native, alter lakes in several ways, including the physical and biological integrity, nutrient cycling and algal production, harming native fish and amphibians.

"Collectively, these impacts result in major changes to lake food webs," the complaint said.

Judge Orrick used existing case law where the byproducts of mussels farmed in the Puget Sound were deemed to not be pollutants under the Clean Water Act. That case concluded that biological materials under the Clean Water Act must be "the waste product of a human or industrial process."

He ruled that the department's introduction of live fish by stocking could not be compared to "running a hydro-electric facility," "spreading liquid manure on a field," or "taking fish from a water body, processing the fish and returning the heads, fins and internal residuals back to that body of water."

"Instead, introduction of the live fish is the purpose and goal of the Department's stocking program," Orrick ruled.

Pace said that wilderness lakes would still have fish and healthier ecosystems without stocking, and that the stocking program is too expensive when CDFW is cutting wardens and other programs.

"The current stocking program serves the interests of a small group of packers who want to be able to guarantee that their clients can catch a fish - even if that is an unhealthy fish with a giant head and small body," Pace said in the email. "I'd like to see fish stocking - and in particular aerial bombardment of remote lakes with hatchery fish - end and, therefore, I am disappointed with the judge's ruling."

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