In the cool waters of Diamond Lake, anglers can fish for rainbow trout surrounded by the beauty of Diamond Peak and the encompassing forest.
In eastern Oregon’s Ontario, at a location accessible by car, entry-level anglers can find easy fishing success thanks to a schooling blue gill population.
And in the mountainous areas of Central Oregon, fisheries for kokanee, brown trout and rainbow trout are alive and well in Paulina and East lakes, part of the Newberry Crater.
Yet these fisheries and many others like them throughout Oregon are always at risk thanks to a silent danger that could at any time begin lurking below their surfaces.
Invasive species introduced to the lakes and reservoirs by individuals who dump leftover live bait into the water, not realizing the harm, or by others who want to change the fishing grounds themselves, take over.
This so-called “bucket biology” is harmful to fisheries, disappointing for anglers who count on getting a good catch at their favorite lakes, and it’s illegal with a hefty fine for those who are caught.
“Most introductions do not take, from what we understand, but when they do take, they can be pretty catastrophic,” said Mike Harrington, acting watershed manager for the John Day Watershed District, who previously was a fish biologist in the Deschutes and Klamath areas.
Fish that aren’t meant to be in a lake can compete with those that are either native to the area or stocked by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Stocked fish are chosen because they thrive in that particular climate, provide a good catching experience and are what the majority of people want, regional fish biologists said.
Invasive fish may eat the same food source eaten by the stocked fish, causing stocked fish to suffer from low growth and poor quality.
“We were able to show that … relative weight was very low in those lakes where we had those illegal introductions,” Harrington said, including in Walton Lake and Antelope Flat Reservoir in the Ochoco National Forest.
Illegal introductions also can wreak havoc on the habitat, stirring up sediment at the bottom of the lake and muddying the water.
That’s what happened in Ontario at Beck-Kiwanis Pond, which is stocked with largemouth bass and bluegill, and then rainbow trout in the winter.
Carp and goldfish that were illegally introduced look for their food in the sediment, stirring up the pond in the process, said Dave Banks, district fish biologist in the Malheur Watershed District.
“It’s a game of attrition. Once you get those species in there, it’s only a matter of time before they take over a pond,” Banks said.
When it’s working as it should, Beck-Kiwanis Pond provides easy fishing and low investment in gear, Banks said.
“There’s a little bit of pride in being able to provide something that, one, the community wants and, two, the community is excited about,” Banks said.
Costs add up
Bucket biology is also costly, both to fishermen unhappy with their catch and to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife – and, really, the taxpayer and the anglers who pay fees – in budget dollars diverted to fixing these problems.
Fixes, depending on the location, can include chemical treatments, introduction of sterile predator fish, catching and removing invasive fish during spawning season and stocking fisheries with more expensive, less vulnerable larger trout instead of fingerling fish.
For example, a summertime trapping program of spawning chub at Paulina, East and Lava lakes in Central Oregon, using interns for some of the labor, cost about $25,000, estimates Jennifer Luke, a Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program biologist in the Deschutes area.
“I don’t know how many people out there really know how much of a problem it is, and the costs of it when we have to try to fix it,” Luke said. “I don’t know how many people … really know how much it affects the game fishery or the native fish.”
Among the best known –and costliest – invasive-fish removal projects was at Diamond Lake in 2006, when treatment with a chemical known as rotenone and all the related expenses involved in that project cost $5.5 million.
In Diamond Lake, it’s Tui chub that have been a recurring problem.
Until the 2006 treatment, Tui chub competed with the rainbow trout for food. They dramatically degraded the quality of the lake, said Greg Huchko, district fish biologist for the Umpqua District. The lake itself became less usable for other recreation because of bacteria and toxic algae blooms.
Now, Tui chub are back in Diamond Lake again, though the number currently seems to be low.
“We are not taking this lightly. We’re hitting it very hard with our monitoring efforts to keep track. We want to see what’s going on over time,” Huchko said. They’re also trying some other alternatives to rotenone while the problem remains small.
Phillips Reservoir in Baker County has had its own struggle with an invasive fish: yellow perch.
The reservoir used to have a robust rainbow trout fishery, where anglers could catch trophy fish. It was an economically important site for Baker County. That began to change after the illegal introduction of yellow perch around 1990.
“The yellow perch introduction caused that trout fishery to crash,” said Tim Bailey, district fish biologist for the La Grande District.
The district has started stocking the lake with a perch predator, tiger muskie, to give the trout a better chance.
To provide fishing recreation around Oregon, the state stocks its lakes and reservoirs with a variety of fish, including the especially popular rainbow trout.
People enjoy fishing for trout because they’re a good-eating fish that puts up a good fight when caught, and can be fished for with either bait or flies, said Kyle Bratcher, assistant fish biologist in Enterprise.
“We did a survey a couple years ago in Oregon about what people fish for, and trout really is the bread and butter of the state,” Bratcher said.
Everyone can help
Though often it’s warm-water anglers who get a bad reputation for being “white bucket propagators,” said longtime ODFW volunteer Lonnie Johnson, Conservation Director with Oregon BASS, most are not the cause of the problems.
“Most warm-water anglers are very concerned about it, too,” said Johnson, of Grants Pass.
A permanent solution will require two important pieces, Johnson said. Anglers should be encouraged to report others when they see illegal introduction of fish. And they need to be educated about why the issue is so important.
“It’s a two-pronged approach. 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,” Johnson said. “We really don’t want to do that. We want to maintain the status quo.”
Note: This story is the first in a three-part series looking at the issue of illegal introductions, or “bucket biology.” Upcoming stories will more thoroughly highlight significant cases, fixes for this problem and preventing the issue in the future for Oregon’s waterways.