Tribe works to protect endangered fish from invasive species


by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Stream

An unassuming little two-inch mussel could delay the return of Nevada’s endangered Lahontan cutthroat trout and endangered sucker cui-ui, but the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, long stewards of the lake, made it their mission to ” prevent invasive species from establishing themselves in the lake.

Lahontan cutthroat trout were believed to have become extinct in 1943, due to a dam blocking their spawning grounds, and the cui-ui were to follow.

But luckily, a fisheries scientist finally identified a remaining population of Lahontan cutthroat trout surviving in a cove on the Nevada-Utah border. This remarkable discovery allowed the tribe to propagate the trout and successfully reintroduce it into Pyramid Lake.

The tribe now operates three hatcheries to produce both trout and cui-ui. But these hatcheries face new challenges: invasive species like the destructive quagga mussel and the zebra mussel.

The Pyramid Lake Tribe Aquatic Invasive Species Program is a new effort designed to preserve threatened and endangered fish species in the lake. The tribe received a grant of nearly $ 200,000 from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in November that will help pay for additional seasonal staff at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Inspection and Decontamination Station next to the highway in Sutcliffe to intercept boats on the way to the lake boat launch.

Ongoing collaboration between the federal government and the tribe is critical to the recovery of the fish, said Dan Mosley, director of Pyramid Lake Fisheries.

“The tribe has its own expertise. It’s part of the traditional ecological knowledge that we have and that we put into the farming of these fish, ”Mosley said. “We combine our expertise and our resources. We are working together to keep these fish alive.

Traditionally, Lahontan cutthroat trout and cui-ui sucker are important to the culture of the Paiute people. The Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe refers to themselves as the “Kooyooe Tukadu” in their native language, or “the people who eat cui-ui”.

“We want to be able to maintain our program so that we can prevent the introduction of aquatic invasive species and continue with our management practices,” said Adrienne Juby, environmental specialist for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Aquatic Invasive Species Program. .

The little quagga mussel can cause big problems in lakes and streams. Photo courtesy of University of Nevada, Reno.

Quagga mussels and zebra mussels, native to the Caspian Sea, are among the most destructive aquatic invasive species known and have spread in the country’s rivers, including Lake Mead.

In Lakes Mead and Mohave, quagga mussels have caused millions of dollars in damage by clogging water supply lines, fouling boats and facilities, altering the food chain and disrupting fish spawning. The Bureau of Reclamation estimates that the maintenance bill for clogged hydroelectric cooling pipes in the Hoover Dam is $ 1 million per year and will likely increase over time.

The Pyramid Lake inspection station was completed in 2018, but the station was not operational until October. Inspections of similar boats in Lake Tahoe have intercepted quagga mussels, Juby said, an example of the importance of a fully staffed inspection station.

“Since we opened on October 1, we have inspected 140 boats and we have had to decontaminate a third of those boats,” Juby said. “A lot of people don’t understand that a tiny drop of water can harbor invasive aquatic species and trigger a whole new infestation. “

If mussels become established in the Pyramid Lake fisheries or if the recently completed $ 48 million dam upgrade to facilitate fish passage, the fish’s dramatic recovery could be reversed. The cost of maintaining the Pyramid Lake fisheries, a significant part of the lake’s recovery, would be unprecedented, Mosley said.

“Because of all the dams upstream, all the dams on the river diverting water for municipal use or for irrigation, the hatchery is kind of like a band-aid system,” Mosley said. “That’s what I call it because if we didn’t have these hatcheries there, it would be really hard for these fish to survive on their own.”

Quagga mussels can survive for up to 30 days without water and hide on boats that have entered infested waters. Mussels are also extremely efficient filter feeders, allowing them to reduce the amount of phytoplankton, the basis of the lake’s food chain, available to other organisms.

Competition for phytoplankton could strain the food chain in the lake, resulting in less food for the endangered cui-ui sucker, and its natural predator, the Lahontan cutthroat trout.

Even though the Truckee River, which flows into Pyramid Lake, does not yet have any quagga mussels, the river is overgrown with water milfoil, an invasive plant that reproduces so quickly that it can reduce oxygen levels in water and plug the channels by trapping additional sediment.

“It’s a concern, which is why we started monitoring,” Juby said. “This way we can follow the movements of the population.”

Pyramid Lake is sacred to the Paiute people, both culturally and spiritually. The lake is also the greatest source of income for the tribe. The past extinction of the Lahontan cutthroat trout in the lake is a reminder of what the tribe stands to lose if trout recovery is hampered by invasive species.

“Pyramid Lake still had a lot of fish back then, before the 1930s. It was the economy of the tribe. It was making a lot of money for the tribe members at the time. When the people died out, we had to find other ways to survive and make a living, ”Mosley said.

The Lahontan Basin, where the Pyramid Lake Paiute Preserve is located, is very different today than it was 90 years ago. Formerly home to two lakes, the reserve now has only one.

Pyramid Lake
Pyramid Lake is sacred to the Paiute people, both culturally and spiritually. The lake is also the greatest source of income for the tribe.

All that remains of the now dead Lake Winnemucca is a dusty depression just east of Pyramid Lake, completely drained by the combination of water diversion projects, roads and agricultural uses.

Once part of the Lahontan Sea, the lakes are remnants of the ancient sea that covered an area of ​​over 8,500 square miles. As the climate dried up, Pyramid and Winnemucca lakes became separate lakes, only connected by a wetland that has also since dried up.

The large trout populations in both lakes helped support the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe when they were rounded up and placed in a reserve, cutting them off from their traditional homelands and food sources.

But the completion of the Derby Dam in 1905, which diverted significant flows to agricultural fields near Fallon, greatly contributed to the destabilization of the lakes and their inhabitants, resulting in the destruction of Lake Winnemucca.

During this period, Pyramid Lake also declined. The lake is estimated to have dropped 80 feet in 1967. As the lake level declined, the number of Lahontan cutthroat trout and cui-ui sucker declined, as access to spawning grounds in the base of the Truckee River declined. was blocked by the roadblock.

“They’re pretty much gone,” Mosley said. “The level of the lake really went down because they diverted the water for farming, so the fish had no water to spawn.”

The story of Pyramid Lake and its people, however, is one of survival, through thick and thin.

After a long struggle involving numerous lawsuits, the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe were able to negotiate water allocations with the federal government and protect the lake and fish under the Endangered Species Act of 1967 and the renewal of the clean water law of 1987.

With more water being released into Pyramid Lake from the Truckee River, lake levels have since stabilized and salinity levels have stopped rising. The Lahontan cutthroat trout have been successfully reintroduced to Pyramid Lake and the Cui-ui have been found migrating to their spawning grounds in the Truckee River as they did decades ago.

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