Here’s a fish story for you: what if you could get paid to go fishing all day? The National Park Service wants anglers to help get rid of exotic brown trout at Lees Ferry on the Colorado River. The agency is giving cash prizes for every fish to try to knock down their numbers. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, the program is an unusual experiment, designed to meet the goals of the Park Service but also respect the spiritual beliefs of the Zuni Tribe.
The water at Lees Ferry is so clear sometimes you can spot monster fish lurking beneath the surface. Big brown trout, a European species with spotted sides and a mouth full of teeth.
"We've seen a couple," says Samantha Peter, pointing out over the river, "a whole bunch of them were right around there." Peter, Jessie Bootz, and Billy Hamill are on a family outing at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, trying to land the big one.
"They saw us too quick, huh," Peter jokes.
"You see them, they see you," Bootz replies.
The kids would rather squish in the mud, but Hamill is still hoping to reel in a brown. If he turns in the head and guts to the park service, he’ll get 33 dollars per fish. "Maybe just get the experience," he says, "I want to catch a brown trout, and maybe the trip can get paid for, you know?"
The bounty on browns is meant to reduce their numbers. Like rainbows, they’re a nonnative predatory fish. They were introduced in the Grand Canyon in the 1920s and eventually made their way upriver to this stretch cold, clear water below Glen Canyon Dam…. perfect conditions for trout.
"In the last seven years the brown trout population has increased dramatically," says Jeff Arnold, a fish biologist for the park service. "That’s why it’s important for anglers to help us with this, so that we will have the least invasive method to reduce these brown trout numbers."
Both rainbows and browns eat other fish. But browns are the more voracious of the two. Brian Healy, the native fish conservation program manager for Grand Canyon National Park, says, "I think our primary concern is that the brown trout population at Lees Ferry grows to the point where there’s lots of downstream movement toward the Little Colorado River which is our ground zero for native fish and humpback chub." Humpback chub are endangered, and it’s now the policy of national parks to keep out exotics that harm native species. But the fish don’t know they’re crossing a line when they swim downriver.
"We have a bunch of fish sonic tagged in Lees Ferry," Healy explains, "and one large brown trout went all the way to the Little Colorado River confluence about 60 miles downstream and back up to Lees Ferry within a couple of weeks."
One option for controlling exotic fish is electrofishing—stunning the fish with an electrical current, scooping them out with nets, and killing them. But some object to this wholesale slaughter. Octavius Seowtewa is a Zuni cultural advisor. "I don’t know if people will understand," he says, "but they’re actually like my children, the aquatic life underneath."
actually like my children, the aquatic life underneath."
Two decades ago, Zunis objected when federal and state agencies used electrofishing to kill trout in the Grand Canyon. Spiritual leaders checked tribal police records and found a rise in the use of tasers against Zuni people at the same time the fish were being shocked. They saw a connection. "Anything that happens down in the Canyon, happens to us here in Zuni," Seowtewa says.
Seowtewa and others told officials if the fish had to be killed, they should be used for food. "It doesn’t matter what type of fish," he says, exotic or native. "If it’s killed for no reason or without a purpose, then it’s against our way of life." Seowtewa is hopeful about the incentivized harvest. Anglers can turn in fish heads and guts at the Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center for the reward, and take the rest home for dinner.
Martin Stamat is executive director of the nonprofit Glen Canyon Conservancy. He explains how to turn in the fish head and guts, along with a data card with contact information and data about the fish. "All of this has been filled out and placed into one of these little biodegradable baggies, tied up, and then it goes into here," down a chute that drops into a freezer. "We can see how we've done today," Stamat says as he opens the freezer and peers inside. "There’s a couple down here!"
If anglers can’t catch enough brown trout, the Park Service may reconsider electrofishing or other measures to reduce their numbers. Stamat hopes that won’t be necessary. "This was really the best and more creative option on trying to balance the fishery here," he says. "It benefits the fishery but it also just gets people outside, and that’s really important."
There’s funding for the program for at least the next three years, and plans in the works for guided fishing trips with Zuni youth and tournaments where anglers can compete for the biggest catch.
All during the month of April, anglers can earn bonuses and special prizes during a "Brown Trout Bonanza." For more information, go to: https://www.nps.gov/glca/planyourvisit/brown-trout-harvest.htm