Peering longingly into his refrigerator one night, Fred Eales searched for something to eat. What he found was completely different.
In fact, what he found may save the Bonneville cutthroat trout, nearly endangered in Utah.As a member of Trout Unlimited, fish were Eales' passion. And they needed him. Several species were endangered near his Rock Springs, Wyo., home, and more (including the Bonneville cutthroat) were at risk in neighboring states.
Eales knew that someone needed to find a way to simulate a hatching environment for the fish, or their numbers would continue to dwindle. They needed a dark, clean place with a water flow system, so the fish eggs could hatch and be released into a natural environment.
And, hanging on the door of the refrigerator that night, Eales realized what they needed was right in front of him.
Saturday, Eales stood by as his invention (though he wouldn't call it that) was presented to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt on the banks of Little Dell Creek.
Tipped on its side, a common refrigerator is a perfect mobile fish hatchery: It is dark and easily adapted so water can flow over the eggs. Nearly 60,000 eggs can be incubated in one unit, and the liner provides a sanitary environment to protect them against disease and poor water quality.
Eales' idea has been used throughout the West, and it boasts a 90 percent to 98 percent hatching success rate among a variety of species: kokanee salmon, brown trout, rainbow trout, and the Bonneville cutthroat.
It's an idea Babbitt likes very much, and one he said couldn't come at a better time. Promoting his "Bring Back the Natives" program, Babbitt came to Utah to highlight the importance native trout can play in the West and to encourage its restoration in the wild. To do anything less would mean perpetuating a legacy of failure, Babbitt said.
"Whenever a species like this becomes endangered, it means we have failed. We didn't think of the impact on the native species, and together we have failed to protect them."
The Bonneville cutthroat is at risk for a number of reasons, said Fred Mangum of the U.S. Forest Service's aquatic ecosystem analysis lab. Livestock grazing is a primary problem, increasing the amount of sediment in the water and decreasing the vegetation along stream banks.
The introduction of "exotic" fish has also played a role in the trout's tenuous status. Don Duff, national partnership coordinator for Trout Unlimited and the U.S. Forest Service, said the Bonneville cutthroat was overharvested when settlers first came to Utah. As a result, fish were imported from Europe and other places to provide food and recreation.
The imported brown trout is the cutthroat's primary nemesis, Duff said. A more aggressive fish, the brown trout competes with the cutthroat for food and often eats the eggs and larvae of other fish.
When the number of native fish dropped, Duff said exotic fishes were either eliminated or no longer imported. Even so, the damage had already been done.
By 1933, Bonneville cutthroat were extinct from Utah Lake. And, since the turn of the century, Duff said they have been essentially eliminated from the Wasatch Front, except in a few locations such as Little Dell Creek.
Babbitt campaigned for a united effort on the part of government, ranchers and anglers to preserve stream beds, reduce sediment runoff and build up vegetation along the stream banks.
"We've got to agree on some way to protect them, and this is a perfect example of how it can be done, here at Little Dell Creek. But it's got to come from all angles. The Bonneville Cutthroat is not yet close to extinction, so we have time to restore them. It's so important to keep that from happening."
For Eales, who hasn't made any money by patenting the incubator, playing a small part in the cutthroat's resurgence is satisfaction enough. "How do you patent a fridge?" he asked with a laugh.