Wrong Fish? Right Creek?

Plan to let fishermen catch native fish in Fossil Creek spurs concerns, lawsuit threats

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Plans to turn Fossil Creek into a refuge for native fish and a delight for fishermen this week could provoke a fly line snarl of lawsuits.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department plans to open the spring-fed Fossil Creek to catch-and-release recreational fishing, after having spent the past several years capturing the native fish, poisoning non-native fish and then re-establishing the natives.

Now, an environmental group has appealed to the Game and Fish Commission to cancel those plans after a study revealed that the creek harbors mostly headwater chub, rather than the roundtail chub the experts had assumed.

The Centers for Biological Diversity (CBD) has vowed to file a lawsuit to prevent the state from opening the restored and renovated spring-fed, travertine-rich creek to recreational fishing.

The Game and Fish Commission will meet on Wednesday to consider the appeal.

Game and Fish officials say the findings won’t make any difference, since they believe creating a catch-and-release recreational fishery in Fossil Creek will benefit all the native fish by building public support for these hard-pressed natives.

The roundtail and headwater chub are equally beleaguered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has put them both on the list of species that would probably qualify as endangered if the federal government had the money to do the study to prove it, said Kurt Young, fisheries branch manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

He said about 26 populations of roundtail chub exist in Arizona compared to maybe 18 populations of headwater chub. Experts had thought headwater chubs lived near the spring from which Fossil Creek flows, with roundtails below. The new research suggests that the headwater chub dominate along most of the creek’s length.

However, the two visually identical species readily interbreed so it will be hard to keep them separated in any case.

Besides, argued Young, the catch-and-release rules of the new October to April fishery in Fossil Creek require barbless hooks and the quick release of any fish caught — which means they would work just as well for either species of chub. The rules also ban any use of live bait or the release of any non-native species into the creek.

Young said the department hopes that the native fish fishery will draw enthusiastic, responsible anglers, who will actually help protect and watch over the creek, which has been dominated by trash-spewing partygoers in the easily accessible portions of the creek so far.

“Really, the bottom line is that the center doesn’t want to see angling in Fossil Creek and we just disagree on the merits of angling there.”

Young agreed the most important issue remains keeping non-native fish out of the creek to create a refuge for native species, but he said responsible fishermen will help protect the creek from the “lawless” element now using it.

“I wish I knew with 100 percent certainty which way is more likely to succeed, but it’s really what we think is going to be the best move.”

Robin Silver, founder of the CBD, said the commission “decided to allow fishing for roundtail chub at Fossil Creek even though there are essentially no roundtail chub there. Most of the chub there are headwater chub, a protected species in Arizona. Unfortunately, this makes litigation inevitable.”

Game and Fish had hoped the creek could draw anglers eager to catch Verde Trout, also known as roundtail chub — a native predator that grows to a couple of pounds, thrives in warm, muddy, flood-prone streams and once prospered in thousands of miles of Southwestern streams.

The CBD asked two Arizona State University fish experts to do genetic tests on the fish in the stream.

Those tests suggested most of the supposed roundtail chubs in Fossil Creek are actually somewhat rarer headwater chubs.

Thomas Dowling and Paul Marsh concluded that more than 90 percent of the fish in one stretch were actually headwater chub.

The two fish look almost identical, but remain genetically distinct. However, the fish readily interbreed, which complicates the genetic analysis, said Young. It’s possible that headwater chub that dominated near the spring spread throughout the stream when flows increased after the shutdown of a hydroelectric project. It’s also possible they always dominated the whole stream, he said.

Silver said some evidence suggests that the headwater chub often dies after it’s caught, even if it’s promptly released.

However, Young said his own experience in capturing and releasing thousands of trout and chub, suggest that both headwater and roundtail chub are much hardier than trout. About 3 to 7 percent of rainbow trout caught on a hook will die even if promptly released, he said. Such a loss rate would have no impact on the Fossil Creek population of either roundtail or headwater chub, Young said.

In addition to the confusion about the chubs, other critics have worried about whether recreational anglers would accidentally or deliberately re-introduce non-native fish the state went to such labor and expense to kill off.

Most of the Southwest’s native fish are now endangered, thanks to a century of dams, water diversions and the introduction of non-native species — especially predators like trout, bass, catfish and crawfish, which eat eggs.

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