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One Man’s Trash Could be a Fish’s Worst Nightmare
Midwest Region, March 1, 2011
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I have always been fascinated by how fish interact with their environment, and in many bodies of water this environment includes a good deal of manmade debris (i.e. trash).

In some of our large rivers, sunken boats, refrigerators, and plastic bottles are as much a part of the aquatic environment as gravel bars and weed beds. In my life I have been witness to several instances where fish meet trash.

From my youth, I have fond memories of fishing the “barrel” in our local river. The “barrel” was actually an old hot water heater which was half buried in the substrate. This particular piece of trash created a nice current break which attracted bass, panfish and catfish, and provided the Wrasse brothers with years of good fishing.

On another occasion, while wading a lake, I came across a large truck tire that had something shiny inside. On closer inspection, the shiny object was a large grass carp which had become trapped inside.

After wrangling the tire to shore, my dad helped me pry the fish out of the tire, and with the exception of a few scrapes the fish appeared to be in good shape.

Unfortunately not all fish/ trash interactions are as innocent. While sampling this winter, we captured a federally endangered pallid sturgeon which had become entangled in a rubber canning jar seal. Sadly, this was not a big surprise.

In the four years I have worked on the Missouri River, we have captured dozens of shovelnose sturgeon which have rubber bands or canning jar seals wrapped around their body. Many times these fish have been entangled for several years, and the fish actual begins growing around the rubber band (like an oak tree growing around a barbed wire fence). Eventually the rubber band cuts into the flesh creating open wounds which are often infected.

In extreme cases the rubber band will actually cut into the body cavity, exposing internal organs. Sturgeon entangled in rubber bands are usually emaciated and less vigorous than unaffected sturgeon.

It is a testament to the hardiness of these fish that at least some individuals can survive such trauma, but we will never know how many didn’t survive the ordeal.

When we capture a sturgeon with a rubber band, we cut the rubber band and remove it as carefully as possible. The number of sturgeon we capture bearing the trademark scars of past rubber band trauma is a promising sign that some of these fish can survive and thrive once the rubber band is removed.

On the bright side, over the last couple years we have noticed a decrease in the number of rubber band sturgeon we catch. Perhaps the large river cleanups organized by Missouri River Relief (MRR) have made the Missouri River a safer environment for sturgeon. Furthermore, because of organizations like MRR, the people of the Missouri River Valley are becoming more environmentally conscious and better stewards of their river. This increased awareness and ownership of the Missouri River will mean a cleaner river for future generations of people and fish.

Contact Info: Colby Wrasse, 573-234-2132 x30, colby_wrasse@fws.gov



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