Bucket biology and its impact on Oregon’s fisheries (Part 3)

Paulina Lake - bucket biology effects on fisheries

When a trio of warm-water fishing groups joined together a handful of years ago to educate the public about illegal introductions of fish, it wasn’t just to help those who fish for largemouth bass, crappie, yellow perch or species that thrive in certain climates.

It was to help improve – and prevent problems in – fisheries throughout Oregon.

For many decades, and in all types of waterbodies statewide, carefully managed fisheries have battled the troublesome effects of illegal introduction of a huge variety of fish that don’t belong there.

They range from blue chub at Paulina Lake in Central Oregon to brown bullhead catfish at Howard Prairie Reservoir in Jackson County and Tui chub in Diamond Lake near Roseburg.

Some of those fish are added to lakes, reservoirs and rivers by “bucket biologists” who want to illegally change the fishing grounds by stocking them with their preferred catch. Others are the leftover live bait fish or former pets from home aquariums, dumped by those who don’t realize the harm.

The best way to solve the problem is to keep it from happening in the first place, and that’s where all Oregonians and visitors can make a difference.

“It’s a two-pronged approach,” said Lonnie Johnson, who is conservation director of Oregon B.A.S.S Nation as well as a longtime Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife volunteer. “One of them is to educate people that this is the wrong thing to do. Period. It upsets the eco-structure in the water. It changes things entirely. And we really don’t want to do that.”

The other, Johnson said, is to make it worthwhile for someone to report “white bucket propagators” when they suspect they see this crime in progress.

Hotline help

About five years ago, Oregon B.A.S.S. Nation, The Bass Federation and Oregon Black Bass Action Committee founded the Turn In Illegal Introductions – or TI3 – program to make reporting this crime simple for tipsters.

The program is a combination education and enforcement campaign, in coordination with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon State Police.

TI3 educates anglers with fliers that highlight the problem of illegal introductions. The fliers also provide information about how to turn in people suspected of illegally fishing with live bait and/or illegally introducing live fish to Oregon waterbodies. “Fliers also are available at state boat inspection Oregon State Marine Board and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife boat inspection stations throughout the state,” Johnson said.

People who call the hotline can remain anonymous while reporting and while receiving reward money of up to $3,000 upon conviction of a suspect. They can report the problem by calling the same TIP (Turn-In-Poachers hotline) that the state uses for tips about poaching of wildlife.

“A big part of it has to do with education, getting people to understand that taking those Tui chubs and putting them in Diamond Lake because you like fishing with them as bait, is not a good thing,” said Johnson, who also is president of the Oregon Black Bass Action Committee.

“When they put invasive species into a lake, they are forever altering the eco-structure,” Johnson added. “And we see it time and time and time again.”

Costly treatment

Invasive fish can be harmful for many reasons, including outcompeting native or stocked fish for food. They can also cause a deterioration in water quality that can limit recreation.

“It’s a two-fold situation, not only do the trout not have anything to eat, but the water quality diminishes to a point where it’s really not even fit for any fish,” said Greg Huchko, district fish biologist for the Umpqua District.

Once these invasive species have taken over, restoring quality fishing to the area can be an extraordinarily costly and time-consuming problem to fix.

A variety of solutions exist, and which to use depends a lot on the conditions within a particular body of water.

In Diamond Lake near Roseburg, for example, the best solution was to use a chemical treatment called rotenone to rid the water of Tui chub in 2006 and reset the fishery, at a cost of $5.5 million.

At Antelope Flat Reservoir in Central Oregon, rotenone treatment in 2009 helped the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife successfully turn around a fishery in which stocked rainbow trout were being overtaken by invading brown bullhead catfish.

“That lake turned around within a matter of a year or two from being a very muddy reservoir with low trout survival and overall low return to the angler to having aquatic vegetation, being more clear and high return to the angler with very large fish,” said Mike Harrington, who now is acting watershed manager for the John Day Watershed District. “It was amazing.”

Other solutions include reducing fish populations through netting programs of invader fish, stocking larger-size hatchery fish or adding sterile predator fish, such as Tiger Muskie, to eat the invasive fish. That’s an option being used to keep yellow perch under control at Phillips Reservoir in Baker County.

Conservation helpful

Conservation efforts can, in some cases, make certain waterways less habitable for invaders.

“In the Rogue River, where fishermen want to catch salmon and steelhead, two illegally introduced fish have done very well in colonizing the river and its tributaries,” said Dan Van Dyke, district fish biologist in the Rogue District.

“The invaders are the Umpqua pikeminnow and redside shiners. Both are native to other rivers in western Oregon, but not the Rogue,” Van Dyke said.

The redside shiners, when waterbodies are warm, outcompete juvenile steelhead for the best habitat in streams. When the waters are cool, the way salmon and steelhead like it, these native fish stand a better chance of outcompeting the shiners.

“It’s just another reason here in the Rogue to really stress everything we can do to keep streams as cool as possible, with riparian restoration and protection,” Van Dyke said.

“This can be done by protecting and restoring native trees and shrubs, with riparian vegetation, and making sure we are conserving water and keeping as much water in the stream as possible and not diverting too much,” Van Dyke said.

Educational process

Prevention is an important tool to keep the invasive fish out and the state costs downs.

“It’s an educational process,” said District Fish Biologist Tim Bailey, who is working on the perch problem at Phillips Reservoir. “Since the west was colonized, people have been bringing their favorite fish species with them and that still is happening today through these introductions.”

“Though someone might believe they have the knowledge to introduce a species and be successful in creating the fishery they want, they could be wrong,” Bailey said.

“Each water body is different. And the response of a fish species being introduced into a waterway, you just don’t know,” Bailey said. “It can provide a fishery or it can do exactly what happened to Phillips (Reservoir), where it could cause one to crash.”

Note: This story is the third in a three-part series looking at the issue of illegal introductions, or “bucket biology.” Previous stories highlighted the many issues caused by illegal introduction and the variety of ways that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife works to solve the problem.

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