'Be free!'

Although recent surveys had not found any wild suckers between 2-7 years old, the shortnose and Lost River suckers released into Upper Klamath Lake were the first graduates of the Klamath Basin Sucker Rearing Program, a recovery program intended to help save both species from extinction. Here biologist Kirk Groves, of the Klamath Fall Fish and Wildlife Office, displays a captived-raised sucker. Credit: Susan Sawyer/USFWS

Biologists hope captive-raised fingerling suckers survive long enough to supplement dwindling shortnose and Lost River populations

By Susan Sawyer
September 14, 2107

On a drizzly spring day, several hundred captive-raised shortnose and Lost River sucker fry were quickly netted from the safety of round tanks at a rearing facility and placed in large, fiberglass tubs on trucks. Battery-operated aerators hummed as they kept the water moving, providing the fry a blanket of bubbles for cover during the hour-long drive to the Upper Klamath Lake delta.

Jeff Mogavero (front) and Evan Childress collect suckers for the trip to Upper Klamath Lake.  Credit: Susan Sawyer/USFWS

After 14 months in a converted commercial fish farm near Klamath Falls, managed by a team of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, it was time for the fish to be released into their natural habitat.

The biologists hope the fingerlings will survive long enough to supplement the dwindling adult sucker breeding populations. But they’ll have to wait and see.

Decades of competing and often controversial water-use in the Upper Klamath Basin resulted in the shortnose (Chasmistes brevirostris) and Lost River (Deltistes luxatus) suckers being listed as endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Recent surveys have not found any wild suckers between 2 and 7 years old.

The soon-to-be released fish in Upper Klamath Lake were the first graduates of the Klamath Basin Sucker Rearing Program, a recovery program started in 2015 to help save both species of suckers from extinction.

Upon arriving at the release site, a quick check showed all of the fish survived the ride. The skittish fry were then netted into buckets and carried a few feet into the lake.

A cluster of twenty, bronze-green sucker fry darted back and forth inside one of the five gallon buckets, taking turns swimming to the edge before bolting back inside, as if playing a game of fish dare.

Biologists Kirk Groves (left) and Evan Childress secure a tank loaded with shortnose and Lost River sucker fry for dilvery to Upper Klamath Lake. "Our goal is for these fish to be fish, to do what they were meant to do on their own in the wild," Groves said. "They are indicators of what the future may hold for fish and other species. Suckers are pretty hardy, but if they can’t survive, we could have real problems." Credit: Susan Sawyer/USFWS

“Come on guys, you can do it—be free," said Kirk Groves, biologist at the Klamath Falls Fish and Wildlife Office.

For most of the fish and a few of the humans, parting ways was difficult. The young fish hung around the wader-clad legs of their caretakers, who were unsure if they should stand still or slog away, leaving the fish to rely on their natural instincts.

Marissa Jager and Jeff Mogavero, interns from the Chicago Botanic Garden's Conservation and Land Management program, looked out over the delta after the last fish was released. “It’s so rewarding to see the fish set free where they belong,” Jager said.

Mogavero agreed. “It’s amazing how a year and a half of raising these fish is over in an hour,” he added.

The Klamath Fall Fish and Wildlife Office team, Kirk Groves (from left to right), Jeff Mogavero, Joel Ophoff, Marissa Jager, Evan Childress arrive with more than 400 sucker fingerlings to release at Shoalwater Bay on Upper Klamath  Lake.  Credit: Susan Sawyer/USFWS

Shortnose and Lost River suckers are slow to mature. They don’t reach breeding age until around seven years, and they can live up to 40 years in the wild.

Joel Ophoff observes a few recently released suckers lingering in the grass. The young fish hung around the wader-clad legs of their caretakers, who were unsure if they should stand still or slog away, leaving the fish to rely on their natural instincts. Credit: Susan Sawyer/USFWS

"That slow growth rate exposes the fish to greater risks and threats before they are old enough to spawn," said endangered species biologist Evan Childress. "Shortnose suckers, in particular, are in real trouble. Their population has decreased around 90 percent since 2000. They could be extinct in 20-30 years if we don’t find a solution."

The goal of captive rearing program is to raise 8,000 to 10,000 sucker fry for reintroduction to Upper Klamath Lake.

"When the program first started, there was a lot to learn," said Laurie Sada, field supervisor for the Klamath Falls office. "We had to come up with funding, land, a building, a viable water source and staff with skills and knowledge to manage the program.”

In addition to establishing the facility, partners were and are critical to the program’s success. It’s an all hands on deck type of project.

"We got funding from Reclamation, a fish transport truck from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Klamath Tribes helped collect fish, the U.S. Geological Survey tracks tagged fish, and we’re building community support at the same time," said Childress.

The first year of the project about 5,000 sucker larvae were collected from rivers and irrigation ditches in the Basin and taken to their temporary home at Gone Fishing, a commercial fish farm. Local aquaculturist and owner of Gone Fishing, Ron Barnes offered the use of his facility when he learned about the agency’s efforts to conserve endangered suckers in Upper Klamath Lake.

Biologist Scott Foott, chief of the California-Nevada Fish Health Center, takes a sample of a small sucker for testing.  Credit: Susan Sawyer/USFWS

"It was the right thing to do," he said. "I had the aquaculture setup. It just needed a little work to get ready for the suckers, and it was a lot easier and cheaper than building a new fish hatchery."

The facility has several outdoor earthen ponds, a large greenhouse with glass aquariums and circular tanks, and most importantly, naturally heated ground water for year-round use. Through a cooperative agreement with the Service, Barnes provided the equipment and expertise to renovate the property to accommodate the fish.

Even Barnes' neighbors, including a few who have disagreed with the Service on past water issues, have contributed. “They like helping the fish, and are pretty supportive of the project now,” he said.

Captive rearing is an effective management strategy for raising species like the suckers. Fish are given basic care while in captivity in conditions that mimic those of their natural habitat. The earthen ponds are not cleaned and the fish are exposed to wind, sun, heat, cold, rain and snow. Algae grows, leaves float and a variety of insects provide a taste of the wild.

After the release, the Klamath Falls team pose for a photo.  From left: Kirk Groves, Jeff Mogavero, Evan Childress, Marissa Jager and Joel Ophoff. Credit: Susan Sawyer/USFWS

Biologists expected about 25 percent of the captive suckers to survive the first year. They were pleasantly surprised when 70 percent of the fish made it. Last year, fry survival increased to more than 90 percent as methods and technology improved.

Captive-reared fish are implanted with passive integrated transponder tags that trigger a USGS tracking array as they swim into the upper reaches of the lake. “The real sign of success will be when the fish we raised and released survive and move upstream to spawn,” said Groves.

"Our goal is for these fish to be fish, to do what they were meant to do on their own in the wild," he said. "They are indicators of what the future may hold for fish and other species. Suckers are pretty hardy, but if they can’t survive, we could have real problems."

For the next few years, it’s a waiting game to determine how or if these young fish fared in the wild. If suckers had shoulders, they would likely feel the weight of the future of their species resting on them.

 

Editor's Note: If you'd like to read more indepth on the Service's efforts to save suckers in the Klamath Basin, check out this conference paper by the Klamath Fish and Wildlife Office.

Susan Sawyer is the Service's Public Affairs Officer for the Klamath Basin, including Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges, Klamath Falls and Yreka Fish and Wildlife Offices.