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Save the June sucker, save Utah Lake?

SPRINGVILLE — Chad Landress searches through the mud and moss collected in the fine netting of the seine as if he's looking for gold.

He's seeking something much more rare — a juvenile June sucker that wasn't raised in captivity.

Landress is one of four people picking tiny, squirming fish out of the netting and dropping them into a nearby bucket, where they will wait to be identified by species, measured on a board decorated with the words "suckers rule, trouts drool" and tossed back into a pond at the Lower Hobble Creek Wildlife Management Area, just west of Springville.

"Last month, we came here and caught two juvenile June suckers," said Landress, a Utah State University graduate student studying natural resources. "But it's a lot of work for very little reward."

The reward came later in the day, when Landress found evidence that this man-made delta provides a haven for the endangered fish.

"We ended up catching eight juvenile suckers in one of the ponds," Landress said. "Some of them were over three inches, which is incredible growth for being spawned in June."

The find is a milestone. Despite spending $5 million a year for the last 10 years to bring the June sucker back from the brink of extinction, no one has found a nonhatchery-raised adult June sucker in Utah Lake in decades.

The eight juveniles found several weeks ago may be the first, if they can avoid predators long enough to grow a few more inches and then find their way from a pond into the nearby lake.

The Lower Hobble Creek area, created last year to transform the last mile of Hobble Creek into a meandering stream with isolated pools where June sucker larvae can thrive, is one of several success stories for the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program.

Spending $5 million a year to save a species many consider a "trash" fish may seem like a waste to some. But JSRIP officials say that every step taken to save the fish has been a step to restore Utah Lake to its natural habitat. Saving the sucker may well save the lake.

The JSRIP is a coalition of state, federal and outdoor and environmental interest groups that joined forces in 2002 to save the June sucker, a fish the federal government listed as endangered in 1986, and identified the lower five miles of the Provo River as critical habitat.

This multifaceted effort includes stocking Utah Lake with hatchery-raised June suckers, removing the fish's chief competitor — carp — from the lake and restoring waterways essential to the fish's survival — the rivers and creeks that feed Utah Lake and provide critical spawning grounds.

And finally, the effort seems to be making a difference.

"The last couple of years, it feels like we have turned a corner," said Michael Mills, the JSRIP coordinator. Mills, who works for the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, is one of two people who work full time to restore the June sucker.

"Ten or 15 year ago, it was all resistance," said Reed Harris, program director of the JSRIP. "Now, with a lot of the things we've done and the stories that have come out, a lot of people realize that what we are doing is valuable, and we tend to get mostly support.

"Working in the endangered species program is usually a downer," Harris adds. "But this has been very positive, and even more so now that we have support from virtually all the entities involved. It's not about just the fish — it's about the lake, and everybody can see the importance of making Utah Lake good again."

Success story

There were 300 to 500 June suckers when the fish was initially listed as endangered. Now, wildlife experts figure there are about 70,000 of the fish, virtually all of them raised in hatcheries in Logan or Springville. More than 30,000 will be added this year.

"This is a continuing success story," said Krissy Wilson, wildlife program coordinator for Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources. "It was not that long ago that people said, 'You are never going to recover June sucker in Utah Lake.' I think this program is showing that we are getting there. It will be a success when we downlist the species."

But that won't happen, Wilson said, until the June sucker is able to "recruit," that is until fish larvae are able to survive to adulthood.

"We know they are spawning and spawning successfully," Wilson said, noting that in June, field researchers found June suckers spawning farther up the river than had been observed in decades. And not just in the Provo River, but in all the tributaries that feed Utah Lake, including the Spanish Fork River, Hobble Creek, Battle Creek, American Fork River and Spring Creek.

"We didn't know they would do that," Mills said. "These would have been used by the fish for spawning before they were endangered. The fish are showing us how much area they will utilize."

However, year after year, the fish spawn, the eggs hatch and the tiny fish larvae begin the arduous trip back to the lake. But the larvae don't survive.

Captured in the swift flow of rivers that have been dammed and channelized in the name of irrigation and efficiency, the larvae are swept out into the lake, tiny morsels propelled into the waiting mouths of hungry predators, such as white bass.

That's what makes Landress' discover of juvenile June suckers in the ponds below Springville significant.

Improving habitat

The Lower Hobble Creek Wildlife Protection area is an example of how the June sucker recovery efforts are benefiting more than just one fish.

The 21-acre area between I-15 and Utah Lake's Provo Bay used to be farm land next to the final stretch of Hobble Creek before it flowed into the lake.

The creek's bed was "improved" in the early 1900s by replacing the natural delta with a straight, deep channel that carried water swiftly and efficiently.

"The idea was to drain it and get the water out into the lake," Mills said. "It did a fairly good job. Too good, in fact."

The improvements inadvertently destroyed wetlands and eliminated small ponds where June sucker larvae could grow large enough to survive in the lake.

Last year, the Utah Department of Transportation, under the direction of the JSRIP, rechanneled the creek into a more natural flow, adding a half-dozen ponds that are isolated from the creek when the water is low.

UDOT did the work, meeting requirements to restore wetlands that were being lost in the expansion of I-15. Three acres of wetlands were created for every acre that was lost in the construction.

Mills said the area, just off I-15 in an out-of-the-way bottomlands, has been a success for more than just the June sucker, as the new wetlands have attracted birds, deer and other wildlife, as well as a good number of people who want to fish, watch birds or hunt for ducks.

The project is a precursor to a larger one planned for the Provo River, but state officials are aware that the Provo project will meet much more resistance.

"We are at least five years away before we start turning dirt on the Provo River project," Mills said. "There are some big concerns, and we want to make sure we consider everything. We have people who own land, and we are talking about displacing some of those people. We can't go running into that and throwing our weight around."

Overcoming resistance

It's this kind of concern that has turned around public perception for the efforts to save the June sucker.

That's a big change from 1984, when efforts to have the fish listed as endangered were seen as an instance of federal interests overriding local control.

In one instance, dozens of June suckers collected during spawning season and being held overnight in cages in the river for the captive breeding program were found clubbed to death the following morning.

Now, many community leaders have come to recognize that efforts to save the June sucker will also restore Utah Lake and the rivers and creeks that feed the lake.

"As the June sucker goes, so does the entire infrastructure of the lake," Lindon Mayor Jim Dain recently told the local Council of Governments.

Reed Harris, program director of the JSRIP, sees the June sucker as Utah Lake's last, best hope.

"This is not just about the fish. It's about saving the Utah Lake ecosystem. That is as important as saving the fish," Harris said.

In 10 years, about $54 million has been spent to save the June sucker by the eight government partner agencies. About 78 percent of that comes from the Department of Interior. Another 18 percent comes form the CUWCD and local water users who own the water in Utah Lake, while the state provides about 4 percent.

About 60 percent of that money goes to acquire water rights and improve Utah Lake's tributaries. Much of it goes to hatcheries where June suckers are raised and planted into the lake.

But the key to the June sucker recovery is to take out the bad fish that now inhabit the lake, even as tens of thousands of hatchery-raised June sucker are stocked into the only body of water the fish call home.

Fishing for carp

For five generations, the Loys have been pulling fish out of Utah Lake for a living.

"I think it was about 1848 when our family started," said Bill Loy, 53, while he worked the nets in Utah Lake's Goshen Bay.

Loy's great grandfather, also named Bill, fished the lake for Bonneville cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish, June sucker and others.

Now, only two of the 13 species of fish native to Utah Lake remain — the Utah sucker and the June sucker.

Fish now associated with the lake — the large-mouth bass, black bullhead, channel catfish, walleye, white bass and, most notably, carp — were all introduced by outside sources.

Carp were introduced into Utah Lake in the 1880s. At the time, it was believed the fish would be a suitable replacement for the dwindling number of native fish, including the Bonneville cutthroat trout.

Carp didn't catch on as a food source, but once introduced into the lake, they quickly became the dominant fish.

"This is probably the perfect carp lake," Bill Loy said. "It's shallow and warm, and there are a lot of carp."

Carp destroyed the pondweed on the surface of the lake. As the fish rooted along the lake's shallow, muddy bottom, they tore up the plant life and stirred up the mud, destroying the plant cover that provided protection for small fish, like young June sucker.

As early as 1901, fish and game officials were complaining that the carp, which reproduce prolifically and grow fast, were causing the trout to die out. They are gone now.

By constantly churning up the lake's muddy bottom, carp transformed Utah Lake from a pristine, clear, shallow lake into an unsightly brown body of turgid water — a change that has had lasting effects.

"If you think about places around the country, whenever there is beach-front property that is prime real estate, and it's not that way around Utah Lake," said Wilson, adding that Utah Lake has a reputation for being the "armpit of Utah County."

Bad fish out

While the lake is recovering, much depends on getting the carp out of the lake, and that's where Bill Loy comes in.

For the next five years, Loy will dedicate himself and his crew to removing 5 million pounds of carp from the lake each year.

Carp make up 90 percent of the lake's biomass — for every 10 pounds of living matter in the lake, nine pounds are carp. But getting them out is back-breaking work that relies on weather, instinct and luck.

"It's nothing but a crap shoot," said Bill Loy.

Loy and his crew of six, including two of his sons, recently worked the lake, spreading out a 300-yard long net, the ends tied to two boats about 150 yards apart.

The boats move at a slow but steady pace toward the western shore of Goshen Bay and will cover about 50 of the lake 96,000 acres in a single sweep.

Loy has selected this area because the lake is shallow here, so fish can't swim under the net, and the area is familiar. One can't use a net just anywhere on Utah Lake.

"You might snag the net on an airplane or a car or a tree — you never know," said Jordan Loy, 23, as he piloted one of the boats. "You can lay a net in uncharted territory and do about $10,000 damage to your net in 30 seconds."

This was the second run of the day. Earlier that morning, the crew had netted an estimated 10,000 pounds of fish — mostly carp with a few white bass and black bullhead. The Loys have to throw everything else back.

The earlier run had also netted some huge channel catfish and about 30 June suckers, which were all returned to the lake. Not many years ago, Loy said, a day's fishing wouldn't include any June suckers.

Boats finish the sweep, the work is all hands-on, with all seven men standing hip-deep in the water and pulling in the net. The process will be repeated four or five times a day, depending on the weather.

When the bag in the center of the net where the fish have collected nears the boats, the men climb into the boats and use large dip nets to pull out the fish a load at a time.

The second pass is a disappointment, yielding only about half as many fish as the first.

August isn't the best month for fishing for carp, Bill Loy said. In late fall, the men will bring in as many as 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of fish at a time.

And winter catches, which are conducted through holes in the top of the ice covering the lake, can be even greater, although the cold adds another unpleasant element to the work.

But the men will have to fish year-round to meet the contract demand of 5 million pounds a year. There is no real market for the fish, so this morning's catch will go to a local mink farm, where it will be ground up for feed.

Wilson and Harris say that getting the carp out will benefit everyone, not just the June sucker.

"When you turn 90 percent of the biomass in that lake to something useful, unlike carp, it will benefit the lake tremendously," Harris said.

And although tests show the water quality in Utah Lake is improving, it doesn't always look like it.

"The water quality in Utah Lake is better, thanks to the increase in water and other things, but it's not evident because of the carp in the system," Wilson said. "They keep the solids in suspension and make the lake look dirty. The water quality is much better than it appears."

Good fish in

A few days later, on another boat and in a different part of the lake, the process is reversed.

Jackie Watson, the official June sucker biologist with the Division of Wildlife Resources, stands on a small boat, using a net to collect 6-inch to 8-inch June suckers from a bucket and toss them into Utah Lake.

Watson said initially the fish were stocked from Utah Lake State Park near the mouth of the Provo River, but they found predator fish and pelicans gathering near the site for an easy meal.

This stocking took place about a mile and a half from the park, where the fish would have a better chance to survive.

About 3,500 June suckers were planted that day — juveniles that had been transported from the hatchery in Logan to the Springville Hatchery when they were about 3 inches.

In Springville, the fish were put into a pond where they could grow another 3 to 5 inches in a habitat more like the lake than the large circular tanks where they were hatched and raised.

Watson is not endeared to Utah's mountains, but she has grown to admire the fish she works with.

"I love them," Watson said. "Before I came to this program, I would have told you that the only fish was a trout. But I have learned to appreciate different kinds of fish."

Watson spend the morning with a crew of DWR workers catching the fish from the hatchery pond and making sure each one was tagged with a tiny piece of thin wire embedded near the dorsal fin.

"The fish are all tagged in Logan," Watson said. "But some of them shed the tags as they grow."

One by one, each of the 3,500 fish is picked up an scanned before they are transferred to a tank on the back of a truck. If the scan shows a fish has lost its tag, Watson uses a small device to implant a new one.

The location of the tag is important. The dorsal fin is used to identify fish raised in Springville. Fish raised in Logan are tagged near the head. The tag is how wildlife experts can tell if a fish is hatchery-raised or natural.

Moving the fish one at a time is tricky because the June sucker is active and slippery.

"They aren't endangered because they are wimps," says Jason Tull, assistant manager at the hatchery, as he picks up a writhing fish that slipped from his grasp. "They are a good, hearty fish."

This planting is the first of the season. Others will follow, as 30,000 June sucker will be transported from the tanks in Logan to Utah Lake sometime this fall.

Saving the sucker

The Logan hatchery, formally known as the Fisheries Experiment Station, is the heart of the June sucker recovery efforts.

Here, hundreds of thousands of June suckers are hatched, and many are raised. About 40,000 a year are delivered to Utah Lake.

Outside the large building that houses 24 large fish tanks and several smaller tanks for sucker juveniles and larvae, are outdoor tanks holding brood fish. These are the progenitors of the hundreds of thousands of suckers produced by the hatchery since the program's 1993 inception.

A single female sucker can lay 116,000 eggs during spawning season, and the hatchery staff manipulates the lots so different males fertilize the eggs from different females from year to year, ensuring ecological diversity for the fish.

Some of the brood fish are discolored with ragged fins, the result of bad feeding and living conditions not suitable for this particular fish.

"Early on, it was a real struggle. We didn't have any information about this fish," said Doug Routledge, FES hatchery manager. "We kept the fish in water that was too cold, fed them food that wasn't right for them.

The 52-56 degree water, which was ideal for trout, stressed the June sucker, and fish food that was ideal for the trout didn't sustain the sucker, which is not a bottom feeder like most suckers, but collects zooplankton from the water.

Now, the suckers are raised in warm water, 73 to 75 degrees, like the shallow lake they inhabit. And the food — fish meal high in protein and vitamin C — is vastly different from what the trout at the hatchery are fed.

"It took years of trial and effort to raise these fish, to learn how to give them what they need," Routledge said.

Hatchery managers, accustomed to raising trout, gave the sucker the wrong kind of feed and kept them in water that was too cold.

"It's been a long, hard road to bring the fish back," Routledge said.

Now, the hatchery can raise up to 38,000 fish up to 8 inches, when they are ready to be planted, and improvements under way at the FES will increase that.

"Once the upgrades are completed, there's no reason why we couldn't stock 100,000 a year," Routledge said.

Long term project

Stocking isn't the final solution. The June sucker won't be taken off the endangered species list until the sucker larvae can grow into adulthood naturally. But the program's progress has its managers encouraged.

"That's why I'm still doing this after 40 years," Harris said. "This is one of the better working recovery programs in the nation. I think we could see an actual delisting of an endangered fish, and that's never happened."

In the process, Harris said, the state will witness the recovery of what was once one of the jewels of the state — the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.

"One hundred and fifty years ago, this lake was clean, totally usable and filled with Bonneville cutthroat trout. We'd give anything to have that lake back again today," Harris said. "I think people are starting to believe we can get part of that back. We might not get the cutthroat back, but we could get a world-class sports fishery along with better water and better use."

And all because of the June sucker.

"The fish was telling us what we needed to be doing to save the lake," Harris said. "We couldn't do this all without the lake."