Science Spotlight

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  • April 30, 2020

Upper Independence creek. Water from the creek flowing through brush and trees with snow capped mountains in the background
Upper Independence Creek provides vital spawning habitat for the Lahontan cutthroat trout in Independence Lake.

Man holding a large cutthroat trout. Very large green fish with a colorful rainbow stripe running along the flank
State and federal agencies, joined by conservation groups such as Trout Unlimited, have worked for decades to safeguard the wild Lahontan cutthroat trout population at Independence Lake, the only self-sustaining lake population of the native species left in California. Trout Unlimited’s Brandon Reeder shows off a hefty Lahontan cutthroat captured at a temporary weir to count spawning fish.

Cutthroat trout fish spawning in a creek. Shallow water creek with rocks on the bottom, perfect location for fish to lay eggs
Lahontan cutthroat trout spawn in upper Independence Creek, where biologists have worked for years to remove non-native brook trout.

Biologist in Independence creek removing non native brook trout. Men wading in the creek hand removing non native fish
Each spring, biologists and volunteers set up a weir at upper Independence Creek to trap spawning Lahontan cutthroat trout and assess the population.

The news out of UC Davis last spring knocked California native fish biologists for a loop.

Genetic testing of native Lahontan cutthroat trout from Independence Lake in the Tahoe National Forest near Truckee found evidence of hybridization with non-native rainbow trout.

To understand the magnitude of that news you have to understand that Independence Lake is the only lake in California – and just one of two lakes in the world – to support a self-sustaining lake population of Lahontan cutthroat trout, a trout native to the eastern Sierra range and the Lahontan basin of Nevada.

And you have to understand that for decades, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) biologists – joined by colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation groups including The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited – have worked to safeguard these fish, enhance their habitat, and reduce competition from non-native brook trout, brown trout and Kokanee salmon introduced over the years into Independence Lake.

Lahontan cutthroat trout are listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. Their original listing in 1970 predates the modern act itself, which was passed in 1973.


Each fall, as part of species recovery efforts, biologists from CDFW and partner organizations electrofish upper Independence Creek, which feeds into Independence Lake, to remove brook trout from the creek that the Lahontan cutthroat trout depend on to spawn. Also in the fall, biologists set up a weir on the creek to block any of the lake’s resident brown and brook trout from moving up the creek to spawn. Non-native trout staging for a fall spawning run at the mouth of Independence Creek are stunned to the surface through electrofishing and removed from the lake.

“For the past 20 years at Independence Lake, we’ve been trying to give the cutthroat a helping hand by removing the non-native trout. It’s not a done deal but we’ve been pretty successful at reducing brown and brook trout down to very low numbers,” explained Dave Lentz, CDFW’s native trout conservation coordinator. “Lahontan cutthroat trout did not evolve with brook trout or brown trout on the landscape and they have been out-competed and displaced by these and other non-native species throughout much of the cutthroat’s historic range.”

Each spring, when the Lahontan cutthroat trout move up to spawn in upper Independence Creek, biologists and volunteers return with their weir to capture and count the numbers of spawning fish to assess population trends.

This spring, however, the spawning surveys will take on a new sense of urgency. After last year’s disheartening news from genetics experts, CDFW staff and partners captured some 170 Lahontan cutthroat trout from Independence Lake, took genetic samples and outfitted each trout with an identifying Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag before releasing the fish back to the lake.

The tissue samples were sent to two labs for genetic testing. The results indicate that some 20 percent of the cutthroats captured and tagged last year show evidence of hybridization with rainbow trout. Biologists are now discussing plans and options for the spring spawn. Cutthroat trout returning to upper Independence Creek will be trapped and scanned with a PIT reader. Unmarked fish will be given a PIT tag, genetic samples will be taken for later testing, and the fish will be returned to the lake.

“We want to prevent further spawning by hybridized trout. We’re using some emerging science and the latest genetics information to manage this fishery,” said Lentz. “The situation is dire for Independence Lake cutthroat trout but we hope to improve their status by taking these measures.”

There are no known populations of rainbow trout within Independence Lake that could account for the hybridization but they are present in lower portions of Independence Creek below the lake. The outlet of the lake, however, is controlled by a dam that does not allow for fish passage into the lake. CDFW and partners will continue to investigate how rainbow trout gained access to the lake. It is thought that the rainbow invasion and hybridization are recent events, likely in the last 10 years.

The effort to remove hybridized cutthroat trout from Independence Lake takes place as state and federal officials in California, Nevada and Oregon step up collaborative efforts to increase Lahontan cutthroat trout awareness and recovery across their native range. Among those efforts:

  • A genetic assessment of Lahontan cutthroat trout across their historic range has been underway for the past several years. That process resulted in the UC Davis findings of hybridization within the Independence Lake cutthroat population.
  • In May 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a document that updates recovery goals and objectives from its 1995 Lahontan cutthroat trout recovery plan using current science and a new conservation framework for species recovery.
  • In October 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 5,000 Pilot Peak strain Lahontan cutthroat trout back into Lake Tahoe, returning the native, fast-growing strain to Lake Tahoe for the first time in nearly 90 years.
  • This coming May, state and federal fisheries biologists are scheduled to begin planning Lahontan cutthroat trout recovery and outreach efforts within the Carson River drainage.
  • CDFW’s Hot Creek Trout Hatchery in the eastern Sierra is preparing facilities to establish a new rearing program for the Walker River strain of Lahontan cutthroat trout native to the Walker River drainage and Nevada’s Walker Lake.

CDFW Photo. Top Photo: A windy day at Independence Lake in the Tahoe National Forest.

Media Contact:
Peter Tira, CDFW Communications, (916) 215-3858

 

Categories: Science Spotlight
  • May 31, 2019

Large blue mat framed into 3 sections with black and orange rope handle on side.
A new egg mat prior to deployment (CDFW photo by Marc Beccio)

Water with orange balls floating.
Sturgeon egg mats deployed in a local waterway (CDFW photo by Marc Beccio)

Brown, dirty, rusted mat with dozes of small round eggs spread out over mat.
Egg mats with Green Sturgeon eggs (CDFW photo by Marc Beccio)

CDFW biologists have been taking a new approach to looking at reproduction in one of the oldest fish species in existence.

Green sturgeon, which are listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act, are in effect a living fossil, having swam in both the fresh and ocean waters from California to Alaska for more than 200 million years.

They are a very slow-growing fish, typically living 60 to 70 years and reaching lengths of seven feet and weights of up to 350 pounds. Little is known about where they spawn in the Central Valley and how successful they are when they spawn.

In the spring of 2017, CDFW biologists began deploying egg mats in various rivers in the Sacramento Valley. In 2018, they documented green sturgeon spawning in the Yuba River for the first time, finding approximately 270 green sturgeon eggs on an egg mat deployed immediately below Daguerre Point Dam in Yuba County.

The egg mats consist of 3.5-foot by 2.5-foot metal frames that weigh about 20 pounds and are filled with a material similar to that used for a furnace filter. Mats are deployed by being gradually lowered to the river bottom from the bow of a boat. They are then retrieved by slowly hauling in the float line to avoid dislodging eggs stuck on the mat.

Unlike salmon and trout which dig redds and cover their eggs with gravel, green sturgeon females “broadcast” (release) their eggs into the water, which then sink to the river bottom, where their sticky surfaces adhere to various objects. Of eight egg mats deployed in the pool below Daguerre Point Dam, the biologists collected 270 eggs from just a single mat. As spawning locations can be difficult to identify, and eggs can be distributed broadly by the current within individual locations, documenting this spawning event was important.

A subsample of 33 eggs was retained to determine the developmental stage which will be used to calculate a spawning date. The mat was then lowered back to the river bottom. The 33 eggs collected represent about 0.02 percent of the total produced by a female green sturgeon of average size.

After confirming the presence of adult green sturgeon in the Yuba River, CDFW biologists believe the river may be important habitat for the species. Further research using these egg mats over the next several years will help fisheries managers identify critical spawning locations and habitat requirements for the future protection and enhancement of the species.

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Green Sturgeon underwater. CDFW photo by Mike Healey.

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Media Contact:
Kyle Orr, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8958

Categories: Wildlife Research