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Utah’s native fish

Most not valuable to anglers; non-native fish a threat

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The cutthroat trout has some very close ties with such odd characters as the mottled sculpin, speckled dace, woundfin and desert sucker.

It is not nearly as close as people might think to popular fish like rainbow, largemouth bass, yellow perch, walleye or kokanee salmon. That's because the cutthroat is a Utah native, as is the sculpin, dace, woundfin and sucker. They've been neighbors for centuries, even millenniums.

Fish like rainbow, bass, perch and salmon are transplants, non-native species brought into Utah for either food or sport.

Utah does, in fact, have a fairly respectable list of native fish but not nearly as long as those of the Eastern states, where there are more lakes and longer, rainier seasons.

Of the 30 fish on Utah's list, only three — all cutthroat — are considered popular game fish. Three others — all whitefish — are fish anglers might keep, and one — the Bonneville cisco — is more popular as a bait than a meal.

As for the rest of the native fish, some people may have heard about some but have likely never seen one, nor are they likely to ever see one.

"Here in the West," said Matthew Andersen, native aquatic species program coordinator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, "we have a relatively small number of native fish, mainly because we have less water so we have a less complex fish community."

The natives fall into three areas — cutthroat trout, minnows and suckers. They range in size from fish the size of a man's thumb to the Colorado pike minnow, an endangered fish that can get up to 6 feet in length.

The movement to introduce nongame fish followed closely on the heels of early settlers.

Carp, for example, were brought into Utah to replace the June sucker in Utah Lake, which were nearly wiped out by early pioneers who used the fish as a primary food source.

"Officials came in and said, 'Oh, you need carp. They're great. They grow large and are a fantastic food source.' So, they introduced this fish from China all over the West," Andersen said.

The species is harmful not only because it eats the native fish and their eggs, but carp "beat the heck out of the habitat," Andersen said. "Their habit of grubbing in the substrate for food disrupts vegetation. They've had a lot to do with the (poor) condition of Utah Lake."

Consensus is that pound for pound, there is no fish more abundant in freshwaters in the United States than carp, and no fish is more harmful. Very few people will actually eat carp, and fewer care to catch carp.

Early records show that Utah Lake was, in fact, once a hatchery for cutthroat. It was reported in 1864 that one haul by a commercial fisherman brought in between 3,500 and 3,700 pounds of trout. By 1872, a catch of 500 pounds was considered good, and now it's down to nothing.

When pioneers first started to move into Utah, records show there was an abundance of native fish. In the case of cutthroat, there were four species — Bear Lake, Bonneville, Yellowstone and Colorado. Then, around the turn of the century, they started to gain new neighbors.

Generally, the cutthroat is doing well in Utah. The one species that is threatened is the Colorado cutt. The DWR is making a strong push to keep the fish off the endangered species list.

The first introduction of rainbow trout is said to have been around 1883 with a shipment of eggs from California. Later, fry were said to have been planted in the Ogden River and Big Cottonwood Creek. They are a popular fish because they are easy to raise in hatcheries, grow rapidly and are believed to be an easy trout to catch.

Browns are believed to have been brought into Utah from the East Coast shortly before 1900. The brown is a native of Europe and is known for its fight, and skills are needed to catch them.

The brook is also considered a good fighting fish and were brought into Utah around 1875. Its natural range is the streams and lakes of northeastern North America.

Lake trout were introduced into Utah in 1894. The lake trout comes from the same areas as the brook.

Kokanee salmon were brought from Washington into Utah in 1923 and planted in Bear Lake and then into Strawberry in 1937.

Largemouth bass came into Utah in 1890, along with a mixed load of perch, crappie and sunfish. The bass were planted in the Weber River and Utah Lake. Attempts to plant the smallmouth happened between 1912 and 1914.

There were, of course, some failed attempts. Species such as the chum salmon, chinook salmon, lake whitefish, white crappie and American eel were brought into Utah but failed to take hold.

Most of the fish on the native list, however, have little or no value to anglers, and most people would be hard-pressed to list them as a fish, such as the mottled sculpin, woundfin and speckled dace.

Those on the endangered list, such as the humpback chub, razorback sucker and June sucker, are better known because of news coverage, but few people have or ever will see one in the wild.

So, then, why worry about such fish?

"These fish are part of the natural resources of our state. For a more practical reason, if more of these species are listed as endangered, our lives here in Utah will be a lot more complicated," said Andersen. "Activities can be limited, based on what's needed to recover the species. The feds will be telling us what we need to do and how to do it, and it would have a direct economic impact.

"Another reason is that these fish are unique to Utah, and I consider them to be the 'canary in the mine.' If they are having trouble, after surviving for centuries, then it's a good indication that there's something wrong with the water source, and water is critical to humans. They are telling us something is wrong with this habitat, and we should be sitting up and paying attention."

One thing that seems to be changing the balance between native and non-native fish is related to changes in our water systems — mainly dams.

Many of the native species learned over eons to survive in the incredibly high flows that occur in the spring and the extremely low flows in the late fall, something non-native fish would have difficulty doing.

Now, the more consistent flows released from dams seem to be favoring the non-native fish.

In some cases, this is causing problems. Trying to keep non-native fish out of the system in order to protect native species can be time-consuming and expensive.

For example, catfish are flourishing in waters once controlled by the humpback and razorback, such as in the Colorado River.

"Now we're not sure how we can even come close to controlling (catfish), and now some of the public are against us taking catfish out of the system," Andersen said.

"The June sucker is having trouble holding on in Utah Lake. So now we're looking at trying to help the species, but also the habitat. In order to do that we need to control the carp. The problems we face deal mainly with water and non-native fish, and right now we're not sure how we're ever going to be able to overcome either of those problems."

For now the DWR will continue to monitor the health of the native fish and work to keep new names from appearing on the endangered species list. It will also monitor as closely as possible the non-native fish, aiding in the planting and production of popular game fish, such as the rainbow, and trying, with available resources, to control those non-native species that are raising havoc with other fish and the aquatic habitat.

E-mail: grass@desnews.com