One unique sucker

The cui ui (pronounced "KWEE-wee"), is a lake suckerfish species and living remnant from the last ice age that occurs only in Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada. The fish is highly revered by the Paiute people and is also carefully protected by the staff of the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Credit: Richard Adkins/USFWS

Cui ui once roamed throughout nearly 8,500 square miles of Lake Lahontan, North America’s largest body of water that stretched across much of Nevada more than 10,000 years ago

By Dan Hottle
July 12, 2017

The saga of the endangered cui ui is every bit as unique as the sucker itself.

Pronounced "KWEE-wee," this lake suckerfish species is a living prehistoric artifact of the last ice age, curiously studied by biologists and highly revered by the Paiute people. It is also carefully protected by the staff of the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For starters, this fish is not listed as endangered because there’s too few of them left alive, but rather because of where it lives – in a magnificent terminal desert lake that has struggled for survival for eons.

A batch of spawning cui ui are passed through the Service’s Marble Bluff Fish Passage Facility in June 2017. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

Cui ui once roamed throughout nearly 8,500 square miles of Lake Lahontan, North America’s largest body of water that stretched across much of Nevada more than 10,000 years ago.

For the Northern Paiute people and other tribes who migrated through the region, the abundance of cui ui not only established a traditional fishing heritage, but served as a critical source of survival food through harsh winters. So much so that the region’s Paiute who settled in northwestern Nevada came to be known as the Kooyooe Tukadu, or “cui ui eaters.”

A Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal member hangs cui ui to dry for the winter in a historical photo. Courtesy photo: Pyramid Lake Museum and Visitor’s Center

Due to Endangered Species Act protections they can no longer legally fish for cui ui, however tribal leaders remain passionate about persuading young Paiutes to take a more active interest in their cultural traditions and in the future of fisheries conservation.

“We are working with the Service to one day allow Kooyooe fishing again so that our people can partake in the harvesting practice and keep those cultural traditions alive,” said Vinton Hawley, Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal chairman. “We’re working to find a solution that will benefit both the fish and the tribe.”

Over the centuries, progressively warming temperatures dried up the vast inland sea and forced its aquatic inhabitants down into only a handful of small, terminal basins. Whatever didn’t have a dedicated source of water desiccated into seemingly endless playas of alkaline dust, flat as dried pancakes, fit only for hearty off-roaders, fossil hunting and the annual Burning Man festival.

A Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal member displays a dip net made by hand from natural plant fibers in a historical photo. Courtesy photo: Pyramid Lake Museum and Visitor’s Center

At what was once Lahontan’s deepest point sits the 27-mile-long, tranquil blue gem of Pyramid Lake, known to the Paiute as Kooyooe Panunadu, or “standing water with cui ui fish.” It’s the last remaining home to the cui ui and the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, and so named for its ancient Pyramid-shaped rock formation and other calcium-built tufa remnants that line its shore.

“With little annual rainfall and no drain to the ocean, the water that keeps Pyramid Lake and its approximately one to two million cui ui alive comes from winter snowmelt carried 120 miles down the Truckee River from Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevadas,” said Lisa Heki, project leader for the Service's Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex. “Cui ui and the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout that live in the lake rely exclusively on the availability of enough fresh water flowing from the mountains for them to spawn in the lower Truckee River each spring.”

Complicating the rise and fall of Mother Nature’s water over the decades, cui ui were also nearly eradicated when a series of agricultural diversion dams were built along the Truckee River in the early 1900s. In the first 25 years after the installation of Derby Dam just outside of the Pyramid Lake tribal reservation boundary in 1905, the lake’s delta where the Paiute historically fished for cui ui became a sandbar, choking off fish spawning access and completely eliminating neighboring Lake Winnemucca to the east. Without the ability to spawn, cui ui and cutthroat numbers dropped rapidly and eventually left the Paiute with little to eat.

Even though the tenacious cui ui can live more than 40 years and can endure several limited water years without spawning, the Service ultimately found the fish’s struggle too great and listed it as endangered in 1967.

Service staff  measure and document cui ui as they pass through the facility at Marble Bluff Dam. More than 500,000 cui ui were passed through the facility this year during the spawning season. Credit: Richard Adkins/USFWS

Efforts to save the lake’s protected fish, however, unfortunately added to decades-long tensions over tribal water rights until former Nevada Senator Harry Reid penned the Truckee Carson Water Settlement Act in 1990. Among other ground-breaking conservation measures for watershed health, the act helped the Paiutes gain water rights to protect their fishery and dedicated upstream Stampede and Prosser reservoirs to help replenish Pyramid when its levels dropped due to drought.

A cui ui is measured before being passed upstream at the Marble Bluff Fish Passage Facility in June. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

During spawning runs when water conditions are right, cui ui mass in the mouth of the Truckee River by the hundreds of thousands in a dazzling spectacle.

Long before they were federally protected, it was this annual spawning event that drew bands of Paiutes together as well as other neighboring tribes from all over the region for hundreds of years to fish, eat and strengthen social bonds.

Each spring, staff at the Service’s Marble Bluff Fish Passage Facility mechanically lifts cui ui and cutthroats up into the lower Truckee River to help them spawn and so biologists can measure and document their progress along the way.

Sign marking the entrance to the Marble Bluff Dam, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates the Marble Bluff Fish Passage Facility. Credit: Richard Adkins/USFWS

The hatchery complex has operated Marble Bluff since the late 1970s, working with the Pyramid Lake Paiutes to research and conserve this unique species, restore the river habitat and secure the precious up-stream water needed for the cui ui’s survival.

“High winter precipitation in the Sierra range and optimum water flows and temperatures in the Truckee resulted in hatchery staff successfully passing more than 500,000 cui ui upstream this year,” said Heki.

For the approximately 2,700 members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, helping the Service save the cui ui is not only a tribute to their dedicated conservation ethic for their lake home, it’s more importantly about saving their heritage.

As tribal members age, leaders say their language and traditional practices are slowly falling by the wayside. Those who watched their elders hand tie dip nets from plant fibers and cast massive treble hooks into the surge of spawning cui ui at the delta as children are now elders themselves who can only rely on stories and old photographs to help educate their children.

“Our younger members are far removed from their Kooyooe heritage today,” said Hawley. “Right now, continuing to educate our youth and each other about our ancestral connection to this land and to these important fish is the best that can be done to keep our traditions alive.”


Dan Hottle is a public affairs specialist with the Reno Fish and Wildlife Office. He writes frequently about the western sagebrush ecosystem.