Points North: Of Suckers, Toads And Clams

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is best known for managing the national wildlife refuge system and the nation’s waterfowl and for its work with endangered species. Less well known is the agency’s fisheries program, another aspect of its mission "to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people." The Service operates a series of national fish hatcheries, assists native tribes with their fisheries programs and plays a primary role in protecting and restoring native fish populations.

Most anglers are likely dimly aware of the USFWS role in fish management, because most species with recreational or commercial value are managed by state fish and wildlife agencies using state fishing license revenues and federal aid generated by an excise tax on fishing gear. Managing fish people desire to catch is the purpose of state fisheries and probably about as far most of us ever think about when we hear the term "healthy fisheries."

To explain and promote its fisheries work, the Service publishes a quarterly magazine, Eddies, Reflections on Fisheries Conservation, which you can find online at www.fws.gov/eddies/. The publication covers an array of topics, most of which are outside the realm of recreational fishing. In a recent issue, there were stories about razorback suckers in Colorado, Wyoming toads and Mississippi River mussels. And you may ask, why are suckers, toads and clams so important? The stories in Eddies have some answers.

Consider the razorback sucker, one of four native fish in the Colorado River system listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. They made the list in 1991, when biologists determined very little successful spawning was occurring in the wild. The USFWS began propagating the suckers and, working with private landowners ranging from ranchers to real estate developers, began raising suckers in private ponds, from which they are captured and released in the wild. The program seems to be working, because biologists are finding spawning adults and larval suckers in the Colorado and Gunnison rivers.

At the Saratoga National Fish Hatchery in Wyoming, toad propagation has been elevated to a fine art. Like many of America’s amphibians, the Wyoming toad is struggling to survive for a host of reasons, including pesticides and habitat disruption, but primarily due to a toxic fungus. Discovered in Australia in 1993, chytrid fungus has since been found on every continent but Antarctica. It is believed to be a primary cause for worldwide amphibian declines. Once thought extinct in the wild, Wyoming toads are now released at the only location known to have a wild population.

As every river rat knows, mussels are a key component of the Mississippi River system. Historically, the river and its major tributaries supported vast mussel beds which acted as living filtration systems. A century of commercial exploitation by button makers, combined with pollution, dams, dredging and the invasion of nonnative zebra mussels, greatly reduced native mussel populations and drove some species, such as the Higgins eye pearly mussel, to near extinction.

It’s likely we still don’t wholly understand the role of mussels in the ecosystem. What we do know is mussels need fish to survive. Specific fish species are hosts to mussel larvae, which attach to their gills. Adult mussels use special fish-like or grub-like adaptations to lure the fish close enough to receive the larvae. To propagate endangered mussels, biologists must first determine the host fish species and then, in a hatchery setting, infest them with larvae. Some of the infested fish are then released in suitable mussel habitat, while others are used for artificial mussel propagation.

Other species covered in the same issue of Eddies include: Texas wild rice, a southern variant of a familiar Minnesota plant found only in the upper reaches of the San Marcos River; the Atlantic sturgeon, a once abundant species now reduced to a remnant population; the bull trout, a western char listed as a threatened species; sea turtles, which needed emergency rescues when a prolonged cold snap struck Florida’s Gulf Coast last winter; and the Rio Grande silvery minnow, a once common river fish now listed as endangered. In every case, it is very likely the work of the USFWS fisheries biologists is key to the species survival and possible recovery of the population.

In this era where everyone seems suspect of all things government, some may ask why we choose to spend tax dollars on suckers, toads and clams which most of us will never see nor miss if they go extinct. Others may ask why the money isn’t redirected into hatchery programs to grow walleyes, trout or some other fish species people like to catch. In fact, the day may soon come when some begin to ask why we spend any money whatsoever on natural resource management that doesn’t have a prompt, commercial return.

These are good questions, provided you believe nothing in this world really matters other than you and me. But if you believe the world around us is a sum of all of its parts, then you likely believe we have a stake in ensuring all of those parts continue to exist. Recently, I heard a radio report that government auditors were unable to account for $15 billion in foreign aid that was spent in Iraq. The radio commentators talked as though $15 billion was chump change, a drop in the bucket. If that is the case, what we spend on suckers, toads and clams, indeed all fisheries management, is pittance by comparison and, undeniably, money well spent.

Airdate: August 7, 2010

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