Fish Tale

Scientists smell something fishy behind dropping native populations

In December, a cabal of respected biologists took the government to task for failing to protect Arizona's endangered fishes, of which there are many. Their report targeted a particular crisis in the Gila River basin. But their findings sent shock waves across the state.

The message? That Arizona's Game and Fish Department is neglecting its native fish, while toadying up to sport-fishing, which pumps nearly $14 million annually into agency coffers through taxes on fishing equipment, along with licensing and stamp fees.

Not that there's a lack of recovery plans for endangered species such as the Gila topminnow and desert pupfish, says the report. It's just that those plans, formulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, aren't being carried out by state wildlife officials. Meanwhile, aggressive imports such as largemouth bass, black bullhead and even sunfish are wreaking havoc on native species.

This point was highlighted in a subsequent press release by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The missive quoted Paul Marsh, a Desert Fishes Team member and ASU biology professor. "The recovery plans are sound but the problem is that there is not consistent follow-through," Marsh said. "The conflicting mandate of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect native fish versus the state wildlife agencies' promotion of sport fishing has stalemated effective actions in addressing root causes of deterioration in the status of the native species."

Not surprisingly, Game and Fish officials don't see things quite that way. "Yes, we do manage sport-fish populations," says Bob Broscheid, AGF assistant director for the wildlife management. "And we do receive federal dollars to do that." Those federal funds come in the form of excise taxes on fishing equipment, and the money goes toward maintaining hatcheries and sports fisheries around Arizona.

But Broscheid describes as "totally not true" the claims that AGF favors lucrative sports fish over unglamorous but endangered natives. Instead, he suggests the impact of non-natives is overplayed. "There are a lot of other issues going on, from damming rivers and illegal water diversion to habit destruction. Those are the things we need to look at, before we decide whether we're going to remove non-native sports fishing (from an area) and convert it to native fish."

Broscheid also blames plummeting native populations on faulty endangered species recovery plans contrived by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--plans the state is then obliged to follow. "Our experience is that a lot of the recovery plans are not sound," he says. "They're very old, and lack current info and knowledge."

In particular, he says recovery schemes should detail direct actions "we can take to remove species from the (endangered) list and achieve recovery." But according to Broscheid, those specifics--such as species population goals and realistic habitat changes needed to reach them--are too often lacking.

For example, a plan might discuss impacts on native fish habitat from more than 20 dams across Arizona. But those dams aren't going away, and raising them as recovery issues is pointless, he says. "The recovery plans fail to go into discussions of what we can do, instead of talking about dams or things we have no control over."

By contrast, Broscheid points to successful resurgence of the Apache trout. "That was one plan that did work," he says. "It identified specific stream segments (for recovery), and specific measures that needed to be taken, such as removal of sports fish or non-native trout species. It identified the areas where barriers would be proposed and it really laid out a finish line."

A call to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown was not returned.

But biologist Sally Stefferud has plenty to say on the topic. Retired after 20 years with the USFWS, she's now a member of the Desert Fishes Team. And she claims that Broscheid's contentions are baloney, especially since the AGF approved--and even helped devise--many of the same recovery plans now being criticized.

"Sure, someone can always argue that those plans are getting old and some are flawed," Stefferud says. "But the AGF had a big hand in writing some of the earlier plans, such as for the desert pupfish.

"I can provide letters of review by Game and Fish on several of the plans. When those plans are done, they're done with extension cooperation from the state. And at least with some of the older ones, we almost always got letters from the state saying, 'Change this comma or fix this sentence, but otherwise we approve.'"

Indeed, the Weekly obtained several of those plans, and they're replete with AGF comments such as this for the desert pupfish: "Well-written, organized, and provides guidance for the management and conservation of the species." Or this for the spikedace and loach minnow: "Clearly among the best of those we have reviewed." Another plan, for the Gila topminnow, was actually revised in June 2000 by the AGF itself.

Stefferud also chastises Broscheid for downplaying the impact of exotic sport fish. "There's very little disagreement among biologists about the role of non-natives in the decline of native fish," she says. "In fact, they are the single most important thing holding up recovery."

In these troubled waters, even so-called success stories are contentious. Broscheid cites Fossil Creek near Payson, which was meticulously cleared of non-natives just before nearby hydro-electric plants were shut down, and a dam removed. As the stream returned to natural flows, natives such as the longfin minnow and humpback chub were introduced. "We looked at that as an opportunity to turn it into a native fishery," he says.

But Stefferud describes the state's role in the Fossil Creek recovery as "reluctant. In fact, at one point the AGF said it would not allow removal of non-native fish there," she says. "Patient efforts and a lot of politicking finally got beyond that. But even then, Game and Fish participation was entirely paid for by the federal government."

At issue was the potential for sport fishing at Fossil Creek, she says. "The first question AGF always asks when removal of non-native fish is proposed is, 'Are there any sports fish involved? Because our policy is no net loss of sports fish.'"

Stefferud sighs. "That can even include species like stunted green sunfish," she says, "that nobody in the world ever fishes for."

Either way, the Desert Fishes Team predicts a sad future for Arizona's native fish. "Implementation and accomplishment of recovery plan tasks for warm water fishes in the Gila River basin has been inadequate," reads their report.

"Nearly all of the listed warm-water species have experienced declines in range and abundance since they were listed. Their status continues to decline, and in many cases the decline is accelerating. The prognosis for recovery of any Gila River basin warm-water fish in the foreseeable future is bleak."