Rising with the Suckers

Crater Lake, located just an hour and a half drive north of Klamath Falls

Just as Hungry in the Night as in the Day

I’m currently on my second midnight snack. I guess you could call it a midnight meal at this point because we’ve been living the nocturnal life for two weeks now—start work at 2am, return home around 10am. The first few days getting acclimated to this schedule were pretty tough; one particular morning involved falling asleep in the waiting room of the BLM office, but now I guess you could say we’re thriving.

Brianne gazes longingly into an sucker-less bucket

Intros aside, greetings from a clear starry night in Klamath Falls! I’m nice and cozy writing this blog post back in the US Fish and Wildlife office. It’s 5 am on Friday morning of our second week. This morning started off with the three of us piling into the USFWS truck to drive thirty minutes to Modoc Point where the bridge over the Williamson River marks the catch point of Lost River (Deltistes luxatus)/Shortnose (Chasmistes brevirostris)/Klamath Large Scale (Catostomus snyderi) sucker larvae we will be collecting for the next few weeks into mid June. We deployed our two separate plankton nets in four sets, with a twenty minute window for larvae to collect in between each retrieval. It was below freezing and lightly snowing when we started, so that twenty minutes of waiting for larval accumulation took place in the car with the heat blasting. When our timers went off we rushed back to our nets with corresponding buckets filled with Williamson River water. We pulled our nets up and gingerly unscrewed the base of the two, using our headlamps to illuminate our samples. We were looking for translucent,10mm long larval suckers, but collection has purposefully been scheduled for just before the peaks of larval activity are to occur, in hopes that we won’t miss our opportunity to catch our goal of 30,000 larvae this season. As a result, last week we ended up with buckets full of plant life, and many different kinds of macroinvertebrates, mostly mayflies and stoneflies.

Williamson River reflection

Why suckers? Why 2am? Why larvae?

I know, so many questions! The shortnose and Lost River sucker species have been federally listed as endangered species since 1988. With both species endemic to the Klamath Basin, the habitat degradation of riparian areas and manipulation of waterways in the the last hundred years have negatively impacted water quality and spiked phosphate and other nutrient levels in Klamath Lake. The situation has gotten so bad that the juvenile suckers are no longer able to reach sexual maturity to bring population numbers back up to a stable level.

That said, for whatever reason my self-illustrated initial mental image of these fish had them as pretty puny and short-lived. My low expectations for the species were blown out of the water (literally) when we were lucky enough to observe USGS studying adult suckers spawning in the cold springs of the rocky eastern shores of Klamath Lake. We learned that adult suckers are supposed to live between thirty to forty years, and can be almost three feet long! I realize that size should not be an indicator of the amount of respect I have for a species, but I was in awe of their size and beauty that day on the lake.

USGS handles an adult Lost River sucker

So that should get us caught up—USFW has undertaken a Juvenile Sucker Rearing Program involving the larval capture of days old juvenile suckers for the purpose of raising them in tanks and ponds located at a shared property called Gone Fishing, just about three miles north of the Oregon/California border as the crow flies. The larvae begin to hatch and float/swim downstream early May through mid June, and are most active around 3am, hence our night work for the next few weeks!

Measuring and PIT tagging suckers before their release into Klamath Lake

In two to three years these larvae we’ve caught will have been steadily maturing in outdoor ponds on the property. Around this time they’ll either be PIT tagged or radio tagged and released into Klamath Lake in the hopes to add to the population of sexually mature adult suckers.

Checking the security of the Klamath Lake soft-release nets

Fitting drains for the 150 gallon tanks

So here we are, back in the office and waiting for the sun to rise so we can head over to Gone Fishing. This past week we’ve spent a majority of our time at Gone Fishing, preparing various sized tanks for the sucker larvae we will be raising to juveniles (about 2 years). Prepping includes, but is not limited to drilling through the twenty-four 150 gallon fiberglass tanks and fitting each with a drain that connects to a mainline, as well as cutting and constructing the PVC piping that fits and fills each tank. There has also been a fair amount of creative interpretation/freedom for how the three of us wanted to construct a table that would support four individual inverted five-gallon water jugs, which would act as our brine shrimp hatching vessels, eventually serving as sustenance for our growing larvae!

Jenny and Brianne fit one of our 150 gallon tanks with a drain pipe

Getting a Better Sense of Place

Mt McLoughlin’s reflection into Klamath Lake

Honestly, my favorite parts of these last few weeks have been the opportunities we’ve been given to learn about this place and the work Fish and Wildlife is doing for the sake of the Endangered Species Act.

Mt McLoughlin and some transportation

Biking to work every morning has helped us navigate this town with ease, while cruising the lake during our first week’s afternoon hours in the radio telemetry boat, and watching the sun come up over the hills as we pull in our last larval set from the Williamson River Bridge almost makes me never want to go back to daytime work.

Larval collection sunrise

I feel I’ve gotten my bearings around town as well as an understanding of what makes Klamath Falls so special. The stillness of snowy Mount Mcloughlin’s reflection on the lake is broken by the Clarks Grebes “rushing” mating dance—a graceful but intense side-to-side stretching and bobbing of the male’s and female’s necks followed by a simultaneous “running” on the lakes surface before both birds dive below the water. White pelicans fly overhead and it sinks in that we are here, and we too are lucky to call this lake home for the next five months.

White pelicans about to take flight

Extra Extra! Update! Larvae waits for no woman

Larval Collection sample vid

Two weeks later: success! We’ve now been USFW for four weeks and we’ve got some news! Last week we had switched back to normal diurnal hours to complete an online electrofishing training, and the larval counts had begun without us! (Collections were still occurring, we just weren’t the ones carrying them out.) With a retrieval of thirty larvae the first day, a few hundred the next, as the week went on and the water warmed, by the time we were back on our 2am coffee-dependent work schedule, our catch had skyrocketed. This Monday marked our first day back on night work, and our haul had us bringing in ten thousand suckers by morning!

View from the bike path that takes us to work, Klamath Falls’ lifeline is the intricate network of waterways that seem to flow trough the town.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.