Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Fish fight: the bull trout waits patiently for his new survival plans

Last week I attended what was basically summer camp for natural resource journalists. Eighteen journalists gallivanted around Montana on a large bus stopping to chat with world-class experts about everything from wolves to oil and gas development to climate change. In our off-time, we drank like undergrads. One of the stops on this epic journey was the shore of Flathead Lake.

Under the vast, blue-green blanket of the lake’s surface nature moves out of order. The lake houses over one million lake trout, a non-native species, and just a few thousand native bull trout. U.S. Fish and Wildlife listed bull trout as a threatened species in 1998. The lake trout’s deleterious dominance is relatively recent, it is human-caused, and it continues to get more acute.

Lake trout were introduced to Flathead Lake in 1905 and for years co-existed relatively well with the bull trout because there wasn’t a good food source for them in the lake. In 1981, Mysis shrimp began to enter the food web in Flathead Lake from other tributaries where they had been introduced to fatten up another invasive species, the tasty kokanee. The shrimp come up towards the surface to feed at nighttime but during the day they sink to the bottom of the lake, which is precisely where the bottom-feeding lake trout hang out. As greater numbers of shrimp sank down the water column towards the waiting lake trout the non-native fish population exploded, leaving little room for the bull trout.

Now, the same agencies that introduced the various invasive species into the lake want to help the bull trout recover its rightful place in the Flathead Lake ecosystem. The problem, however, is they cannot seem to agree upon the best way to do it.

We met with representatives from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey to hear their respective thoughts on how to best approach a recovery. The word of the day up until that point had been “collaboration,” and at our preceding stops (and, actually, on the following stops, as well) the various range and wildlife managers we spoke with emphasized the importance of collaboration amongst stakeholders. Here, though, on the shore of Flathead Lake we sat politely at two picnic tables while several men from these agencies plead their cases, argued and all but physically assaulted each other. It was MFWP against everybody else. If not for the journalists’ visit, the clashing parties in front of us would not be communicating, they admitted. Their exchanges were tense, their words strong, and their positions immovable. A reporter sitting next to me scribbled in her notepad and passed it over. “Fish fight,” it read.

The management strategy thus far has been to encourage more sport fishing. In 2000 the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, who co-manage the lake, adopted a management plan based on research and set up a fishing competition called Mack Days. “If you want to recover a species you have to eliminate the biggest risk,” said Wade Fredenberg with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Far and away the single greatest risk to the persistence of bull trout in this entire ecosystem is lake trout.” The Tribes invest about $400,000 annually to run the competition. The point, basically, is to encourage anglers to remove as many lake trout out of the Flathead’s waters as they can. All told, anglers remove from the lake about 70,000 fish per year. Still, that has not been enough to help the bull trout recover, a Tribes fisheries biologist, Barry Hansen, says. Not to mention, the management plan expired in 2010.

At the end of June, the Tribes released an Environmental Impact Statement that proposes more drastic management possibilities to give the miserable bull trout population a fighting chance. The EIS offers up four options for consideration: do nothing, ratchet the annual harvest to 25% of the population, 50%, or 75%. The proposal also introduces new tools for harvesting more fish, like the controversial gillnet, which, opponents say, removes fish indiscriminately. The Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks agency’s disagreements with the Tribes are so sharp at this point that they did not participate in this EIS.

The debate comes down to goals. The Tribes’ goal is to restore the bull trout. The fish is important to the Tribes culturally, and the Tribes have made it a priority to maintain the ecosystem in the region in as pristine condition as possible, something a disappearing native fish population hinders. For Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, recreational fishing seems more the focus. As one well-spoken journalist in the group put it, the agency’s Jim Vashro seemed to shit on the science in his attempt to find ways to maintain recreation levels on Flathead Lake.

For example, while Tribes push for ways to reduce the lake trout population, MFWP institutes a slot regulation for the fish that mandates mid-size lake trout, the ones most likely to breed and make more lake trout, be thrown back into the water so that they can one day grow to be trophy fish for anglers. Tribes want to increase the bull trout population while MFWP says they’re ‘stable’ as is. Vashro says there are currently 500 redds, or spawning grounds, which, according to the expired management plan is 60% above what is considered “secure.” Fredenberg says MFWP’s affirmation of “secure” is “garbage” and that the current redd count is 55% of the desired recovery level. As another wildlife manager familiar with controversy – he helped reintroduce wolves – told us at a wolf stop on the trip, managing wildlife is really about managing people. When we first arrived on the shore of Flathead Lake I noticed the lone woman there promptly disappeared once the men began sparring. Bonnie Ellis is a limnologist who does research on the Flathead.

When we finished speaking with the agency representatives, she reappeared and took us out on the lake in her research boat. The boat spat smoke loudly. She had altered the exhaust to pump into the air instead of the water to better guarantee clean samples. Standing with a large poster illustrating the Flathead Lake food web, she said the problem is the web itself, which has been altered magnificently from the zooplankton on up. She said the problem is water quality in the lake and algal blooms. She got emotional when she spoke about the need for long-term data sets and the lack of funding to do them. She said she can’t stand listening to the agency guys go on and on anymore.