Black Horse, Blue Sucker

The expanded version of this article, with full citations and more images, is a little behind schedule—I’m working to not leave anything out. It should be up in a day or two. I’ll announce it on twitter (follow @moxostoma) and facebook (https://www.facebook.com/moxostoma).

LeSueur's illustration of a Blue Sucker, which he called Catostomus elongatus.

LeSueur’s illustration of a Blue Sucker, which he called Catostomus elongatus.

1917′s Sweet Smell of Spring in Minnesota: 2 Million Pounds of Dead Buffalo & Carp

Fins, Feathers and Fun, June 1917

Fins, Feathers and Fun, June 1917

Dead Fish, Buffalo Lake, Martin County, MN, Spring of 1917

Dead Fish, Buffalo Lake, Martin County, MN, Spring of 1917

DEAD FISH, BUFFALO LAKE, MARTIN COUNTY, SPRING OF 1917.
Estimated 175,000 pounds smothered in this lake alone last winter. Game Warden Altenberg of Fairmount made a careful survey of the lakes of Martin county and found loss of fish in twenty lakes, the following, Martin, Charlotte, Cedar, Buffalo, Fish, North Silver, Iowa, Tuttle, Susan and East Chain, suffering most heavily. Mr. Altenbergy estimated the total loss from smothering of fish in Martin county last winter, chiefly carp and buffalo, at nearly two million pounds. There were caught and sold from the lakes of this county last season about 770,000 pounds of carp and buffalo, but several lakes were not opened for fishing by the county commissioners. The loss of fish in Martin county last winter illustrates the folly of closing shallow lakes to “rough” fishing.

The obvious question here: what do you do with 2 million pounds of dead fish? Luckily, the same issue provides some options:

Fish Recipes (from Fins, Feathers and Fur, June 1917, published by the Minnesota Game and Fish Dept.)

Fish Recipes (from Fins, Feathers and Fur, June 1917, published by the Minnesota Game and Fish Dept.)

Modoc Sucker Delisting: Public Comment Period Extended

Anyone with scientific or other evidence regarding the health of the Modoc Sucker as a species has a very brief window during which additional comments may be submitted regarding the FWS proposal to remove the species from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife.

De-listing was proposed a year ago (February, 2014). See my post about it here.

The proposal states:

We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), propose to remove the Modoc sucker (Catostomus microps) from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. This determination is based on a thorough review of the best available scientific and commercial information, which indicates that the threats to this species have been eliminated or reduced to the point that the species no longer meets the definition of an endangered species or a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act). If finalized, the effects of this rule would be to remove the Modoc sucker from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. This proposed rule, if made final, would also remove the currently designated critical habitat for the Modoc sucker throughout its range.

If this proposed rule is made final, it would … remove the Modoc sucker from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and … remove designated critical habitat for the species. The prohibitions and conservation measures provided by the Act … would no longer apply to this species. Federal agencies would no longer be required to consult with the Service under section 7 of the Act in the event that activities they authorize, fund, or carry out may affect Modoc sucker.

The announcement of the additional comment period is at https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2015/02/13/2015-02928/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-remove-the-modoc-sucker-from-the-federal-list-of. It says, in part, “We will consider comments received or postmarked on or before March 16, 2015…. Any comments that we receive after the closing date may not be considered in the final decision on this action.”

We intend that any final action resulting from the proposed rule will be based on the best scientific and commercial data available and be as accurate and complete as possible. Therefore, we request comments or information from other concerned Federal and State agencies, the scientific community, or any other interested party concerning the proposal to remove the Modoc sucker from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife…

Only 8 comments were submitted last year during the initial comment period.

Five of the 8 comments from last year are in favor of delisting, 1 (written by a USDA Forest Supervisor in Oregon) does not explicitly state a position but does point out errors and omissions in the proposal, and 2 are against delisting.

Of those in favor, one is a peer review (by the person who has done most of the scientific work on the species’ status) of the science as presented in the proposal, one is a peer review (by the same person) of proposed monitoring efforts after delisting, one is a letter from the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife in support of the proposal (with a few notes on possible improvements of the monitoring plan), one is from a USGS fishery biologist, and one is a long letter from the California Cattlemen’s Association (much of it describing good work done by individual ranchers so far and promising that they will continue to protect habitat even if they are no longer required to do so).

Neither dissenting comment presents evidence to support continued protection of the species. A letter from the Tribal Chairperson of the Pit River Tribe (of northern California) asks that protection of the species and its habitat be continued and that more be done to protect the Pit River from pollution and degradation. The other comment against the proposal says only “Do not delist the Modoc Sucker. Instead stop giving their water away to wasteful farming endeavors.”

These comments carry little to no weight, since only those with evidence are considered:

Please note that submissions merely stating support for or opposition to the action under consideration without providing supporting information, although noted, will not be considered in making a determination, as section 4(b)(1)(A) of the Act directs that determinations as to whether any species is an endangered or threatened species must be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”

Much of the science regarding this species seems to have been done by (or on behalf of) various government agencies to monitor it under the requirements of its endangered species designation, particularly during a 5-year status review begun in 2006 (at the end of which it was recommended that the species be downgraded from endangered to threatened). Since there are few scientists or organizations studying or supporting study of the species (compared to species that are more economically important or with wider cultural impact and value, such as salmon), it’s not surprising that no evidence-based cases are being made against delisting.

Of course, maybe there would be no such evidence if more science existed. As I said a year ago, it is possible that the Modoc Sucker is secure and that delisting is warranted. It has been found in more streams than at the time of listing (1985), and numbers in some areas are up. Threats have been reduced, at least in some streams, and some habitat has been restored. Some of the information available at the time of listing was lacking, and methods of monitoring have probably improved. I don’t think there is any doubt that the Modoc Sucker, as a species, is healthier today than it was 30 years ago. Whether it is healthy enough, however, seems less clear.

A peer review submitted by Eric Janney (Supervisory Fishery Biologist, U.S. Geological Survey, Western Fisheries Research Center, Klamath Falls Field Station) says that though there is not enough scientific information, delisting is the appropriate course of action:

I have thoroughly reviewed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed rule to remove the Modoc Sucker from the Federal Endangered Species list as well as the post-delisting monitoring plan. Based on my professional scientific opinion, I agree with the Service’s decision to delist this species. Although specific scientific information concerning the population dynamics (i.e. abundance, survival, recruitment) for the Modoc sucker is lacking, I believe that the available scientific information (based primarily on observational count surveys) is sufficient to conclude that the threat of extinction for this species is currently very low. I’m basing this conclusion primarily on the fact that during the 29 year time period since the species was placed under the protection of the ESA, there has been no apparent reduction in range or extirpation from any critical habitat. In fact, the known range for this species has either increased substantially since listing, or was dramatically underestimated at the time of listing. Also, newer genetic information concerning the rate of hybridization between Modoc suckers and Sacramento suckers suggests that the threat of introgression is substantially less than previously believed and the rate of hybridization is not increasing. So, although the amount of scientific information concerning abundance and population dynamics is relatively scarce, other types of evidence suggest relatively healthy populations in multiple sub-basins. This leads me to believe that extinction risk for this species is not high enough to warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

I predict that the Modoc Sucker will be delisted. That said, if even a scientist who supports delisting admits that “specific scientific information concerning the population dynamics (i.e. abundance, survival, recruitment) for the Modoc sucker is lacking,” and since substantial support for this proposal is agricultural (and, in the case of the foundation that petitioned in 2011 for downgrading, philosophical) in origin, I remain concerned that this decision will be eventually be seen as a mistake. Without habitat protection, and given the relatively short proposed duration of the monitoring program, the species could easily be put in jeopardy more quickly than new protections can be put in place.

The Oregon Chub (Oregonichthys crameri) has officially been delisted this week (the first time a fish has been removed from the list for a reason other than extinction), and all indications are that it truly has recovered sufficiently that extinction is no longer likely. I hope that the Modoc Sucker’s story has a similarly happy outcome.

See all the comments, along with the text of the proposal, supporting documents, etc., here: http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketBrowser;rpp=25;po=0;D=FWS-R8-ES-2013-0133

The FWS Modoc Sucker Species Report (2013), which includes the population data, survey reports, threat assessments, etc., on which the delisting proposal is based, is available as a 70 page PDF.

Garz! (In hoc signo…)

Passed this sign the other day on the way to a river with a good population of Shortnose Gar (I still can’t get used to the idea that it’s now the accepted practice to capitalize common names, but I’m trying). The plan was to catch some. The sign seemed to promise me success. (In hoc signo vinces, right?) The obvious promise was broken.

A neon sign that says "GARZ."

In hoc signo vinces? Not this time. (Oglesby, IL)

 

As long as I’m posting signs of the coming of The Gar, here’s another one from a couple years ago.

Neon sign saying GAR.

Brookfield, IL

Mapping the Paddlefish (because someone had to do it)

I needed a map showing the range of the Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula, also known as spoonbill catfish, among other things), one of North America’s most striking animals. Despite a lot of searching (online and in books), however, I couldn’t find any map that was both up-to-date and of sufficient quality. I also couldn’t find any single listing of the species’ current status in all states where it is found, nor the regulations governing if/how it can be caught (for sport or commercially). What else could I do but create the map I needed?*

Paddlefish_map_OGN2014

The map was created to accompany a paddlefish article in the fall 2014 issue of American Currents. (Click on the map to see it larger.)

Note: As noted in the key below the map, PA and NY have paddlefish populations. They are shown in the extirpated color because the species is still officially considered extirpated by both states. When that changes, so will the map.

Corrections welcome, but only if they come with reference to sources so I can verify and keep track.

Copyright information:

Creative Commons License
Status and distribution of the Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) in North America by Olaf Nelson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
(This means you may use the map for non-commercial purposes only, provided it is not altered in any way and you credit me. A link to http://moxostoma.com/paddlefishmap would also be nice. If, for some reason, you want to use the map in something commercial, contact me. If you need it altered somehow, contact me.

Additional notes on the paddlefish:

The last time a wild paddlefish was seen in Ontario was 1917.

Paddlefish roe (eggs) make fine caviar, and as is the case with many species of sturgeon, this fact has had a negative impact on the species’ population. Tight rules now govern the harvest and sale of paddlefish roe, but poachers still take fish illegally as there is money to be made.

Read the journal of just about any early European explorer traveling up the Mississippi and you’ll find references to the paddlefish. They must have been extremely common before we fished, dammed and poisoned them to their current reduced state.

  • In about 1805, Zebulon Pike, traveling the Mississippi somewhere around what is now southern Illinois/Missouri recorded this:
    (click on the image to go to the book)
  • Father Louis Hennepin, in (I think) 1680, compared a Mississippi River (he called it “the River Colbert”) paddlefish to a devil:

    “The eagles, which are to be seen in abundance in these vast countries, will sometimes drop a breme, a large carp [there were no carp on this continent at the time, so he meant either various suckers or perhaps mooneye, goldeye, or drum], or some other fish, as they are carrying them to their nests in their talons, to feed their young. One day we spied an otter, which was feeding on a great fish upon the bank of the river [some versions say "River Colbert" here]; which fish had upon its head a sort of beak about five inches broad, and a foot and half long. As soon as the Picard spied it, he cried out he saw the devil between the claws of the otter. This surprise was not so great, but that we made bold to feed heartily upon it. The flesh of it was good; and we named it the sturgeon with the long beak.”
    (Click on the page image to go to the book.)
  • One of the earliest illustrations appeared in the account of Antoine Simon LePage DuPratz (1695-1775), who traveled to North America in 1718 and spent 16 years living in “Louisiana,” a larger area then than now. His memoirs provide a wealth of information about the native people and animals of the region. Here are a few pages on fish and fishing, featuring suckers (what he calls carp are probably suckers of various species, since carp would not arrive here for another century or more; a later author, mentioning DuPratz, identifies the carp as buffalo, which makes perfect sense), gar (“armed fish”), catfish (at least that’s how I would identify his two kinds of “barbel”) and bowfin (“choupic”). If he did nothing beyond this, I’d still consider him a great man: he calls the bowfin beautiful and says many people confuse it with trout for its willingness to take a fly!

    A few pages from the chapter on fish:

    (Click on any of the images to go to the book.)
    I don’t know whether the illustrations are based on sketches by DuPratz or wholly created by someone who had never seen any of these animals (which happened a lot, leading to some wildly inaccurate images), but they combine a simplistic style uncommon for animal woodcuts in books of this time with a surprising lack of the fantastic over-imagination also common at the time.

Sources consulted in the creation of the map:

  • “Ecology and biology of paddlefish in North America: historical perspectives, management approaches, and research priorities,” by Cecil A. Jennings & Steven J. Zigler, in Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 10: 167-181 (2000), itself based on a map in Carlson and Bonislawsky (1981), was the source for placement of the dots showing historical, unconfirmed captures. http://dx.doi.org/10.1023/A:1016633604301.
  • Freshwater Fishes of North America: Volume 1: Petromyzontidae to Catostomidae.Melvin L. Warren, Jr. and Brooks M. Burr, Editors. JHU Press, 2014 https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/freshwater-fishes-north-america
  • Douglas M. Carlson & Patrick S. Bonislawsky (1981) “The Paddlefish (Polyodon Spathula) Fisheries of the Midwestern United States,” Fisheries, 6:2, 17-27, DOI: 10.1577/1548-8446(1981)006<0017:TPPSFO>2.0.CO;2 http://dx.doi.org/10.1577/1548-8446(1981)006<0017:TPPSFO>2.0.CO;2
  • The Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North America North of Mexico (Second Edition) by Lawrence M. Page and Brooks M. Burr. HMH, 2011.
  • The paddlefish page of the USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species site: http://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/factsheet.aspx?SpeciesID=876
  • The paddlefish page of the IUCN Redlist site: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/full/17938/0 [Their citation: Grady, J. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) 2004. Polyodon spathula. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.2. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 03 October 2014.]
  • And the websites of the agencies in each state that govern wildlife, endangered and threatened species, fishing regulations, etc. There are too many to list here. All I’ll say about them is that some states are much better than others when it comes to making it easy to find information.

*Making things like this is part of my real job (loving unloved fish is, for me anyway, not a paying gig) as a book designer (mostly the pages, but also covers). I specialize in scholarly and scientific books and journals. If you are a scholar or scientist who needs someone to design your next book or the journals you edit, please get in touch.

Like native fish? Check out NANFA.

The North American Native Fishes Association (http://nanfa.org) is dedicated to native fish conservation, science, education, promotion, and appreciation. It publishes American Currents, a full-color quarterly journal (of which I am an editor as of a couple issues ago) that is mailed to all members. The annual convention, held in a different part of the country each year, brings together scientists, anglers, photographers, aquarists and other fishy people for several days of collecting fish, snorkeling with fish, talking about fish, etc. Dues are affordable ($30/year). Print out this  NANFA membership form or visit http://nanfa.org/join.shtml.

American Currents (now in its 39th year) publishes a variety of material, from hard science to expedition reports. The spring 2014 issue even had an article about a member’s redline darter (Etheostoma rufilineatum) tattoo. That issue, by the way, is no available for free download at http://www.nanfa.org/ac.shtml.

Another valuable aspect of NANFA is its active forum, where members share information about all things native fish. It is that rare sort of web forum where most members are knowledgeable, generous, calm and able to communicate. The photo galleries include thousands of stunning fish photos.

I should point out that this is a very diverse organization. There are biologists whose names you would recognize if you’ve done any reading of the scientific literature or any Freshwater Fishes of State X books. There are people who keep native fish in aquariums. There are micro-fishers and normal anglers (sorry, couldn’t resist).

The covers of the most recent issue (Vol. 39, no. 3 [July, 2014]) and the previous issue (Vol. 39, no. 2 [April, 2014]), which has my white bass photo on the back cover:

NANFA_AmericanCurrents_39-3cover NANFA_AmCurrents_39-2_cover NANFA_AmCurrents_39-2_backcover

 

Gar Accomplished: all 5 US species

Contact with gar fires me up in a way no other group of fish does, and I know I’m not alone in appreciating these fish. The reaction they ignite in me is located somewhere deeper than the feelings touched off by more recently arrived fishes like trout, bass, or even suckers. It’s been said before by others who have found themselves addicted to these fish: they’re dinosaurs, dragons, pure predators, living fossils.

For me it is this: when I interact with a gar—hold it in my hands, feel its armor and muscle flexing and really look at it—I’m in contact with the Earth not as my familiar home, but as it truly is, stripped of maps, knowledge, and all the other baggage we pile up to create our illusion of understanding and control. A gar in hand is time travel, the Earth before names and ideas.

I know I’m probably reading too much into this, but something is definitely different about the gar experience.

Pseudo-poetic BS aside, gar are bad-asses. Muscle, teeth, armor, hunger, tenacity, and confidence add up to a fish that’s a hell of a lot of fun to catch. Small or large, they fight like crazy and no matter how careful you are, they can—and will—cut you. A truly spectacular, beautiful animal.

I have now caught all 5 gar species in the U.S. (and though I’ve caught all 4 that live in Illinois, I have yet to realize my goal of catching all 4 of them in a single day). Only the tropical gar (Atractosteus tropicus) and the Cuban gar (Atractostes tristoechus) remain, and I intend to meet both of them eventually. Until then, there is no chance I’ll lose interest in continuing to fish for the “local” gars at every opportunity.

Remember: compared to gar, all other fish are just bait.

July 12, 2014, Illinois River backwaters: My lifer spotted gar (Lepisosteus oculatus) Spotted gar! Spotted gar would NOT hold still. Luckily I've got shaolin monk speed.


January 6, 2014, Tamiami Trail, FL: Caught a bunch of Florida gar (Lepisosteus platyrhincus) Florida gar Florida gar


August 31, 2013, Illinois River backwaters: My lifer alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula), believed to be the first one caught in Illinois since 1966. (More about this fish here, here and here.)Alligator Gar


June 7, 2012, Mississippi River, WI: My lifer longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus), 47 inches long and about 17 pounds, caught on a hookless rope lure.

Longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus), 47" long, Mississippi River, WI, 6/7/2012 (on a hookless rope lure)


July 28, 2011, LaSalle County, IL: One of many shortnose gar (Lepisosteus platostomus) I caught the day I got my first one (8 landed in first 12 casts).

shortnosegar_7-28-2011_garvana

The World of Suckers (1909) and the Growth of Suckerism

Suckerism is not a circumstantial folly but an active emotion.

Lionel Josaphare

All hail the great unacknowledged scholar of suckers and suckerism, Lionel Josaphare (1876–?), whose work belongs on the shelf with your other fish books. It even includes valuable information missing from all those old Jordan & Evermann books and your $250 copy of Becker’s Fishes of Wisconsin. Though they covered a great many species, they apparently ignored quite a few. According to The World of Suckers, published in 1909,  some of the major sucker species are:

  • The Biped with the Coin
  • The Sucker Who Wants To Get Rich Quickly
  • The Voter
  • The Man Who Wants To Go to Heaven
  • The New Thought Sucker
  • The Soldier
  • The Lover
  • The Girl With the Demon Lover
  • The Sucker in Search of Happiness
  • The Optimist and the Pessimist
  • The Sucker Who Fears Public Opinion
  • The Sucker Who Tells the Truth
  • The Idealist and Reader of Fiction
  • The Astonished Sucker
  • and more!

Cover of the World of Suckers by Lionel Josaphare (1909)Josaphare covers everything you could possibly want to know about suckers AND suckerism.

For example, he provides a definition of the word “sucker”

[p. 1] It has been suggested that the word “sucker” arose from the name of a sweet and unsophisticated fish that skips through the waters of the Great Lakes and inflowing streams. Its aptitude for the hook was first the delight and then the ridicule of its captors, who were, perhaps like many good folks, looking for something at once delightful and ridiculous.

[…]

“Sucker,” then, on the face of it, means one who sucks obviously at an idea. Ideas are the milk of the mind, the nourishment of the soul, the food of national greatness. And even as a cow, or any female animal, unless soft hands or mouths take the milk, would corrupt its product, so would great ideas drivel over and dry without suckers.

He explains the Absolute Necessity for Suckers:

[p. 3] In order that civilization progress and partake of poetic grandeur continuously or now and then, there must be, ready and willing at all times, a predominance of joyful and high-spirited fools. These supply the hurrah and sentiment, money and labor: Make no mistake; these are not fools of the brain, but fools of the world. In themselves they are good, law-abiding, tax-paying, intelligent men; virtuous or avaricious, as they are wanted.

He also provides some Remarks on the Growth of Suckerism (p. 6). He settles a question we have long debated by revealing The Greatest Sucker of All (p. 85), and describes An Ordinary Day in the Life of a Sucker  (p. 102).

Continue reading

Bowfin for June Species Contest

I got to draw the button (and t-shirt) again this year for the roughfish.com June species contest. Last year I did a pumpkinseed. This year I made a bowfin. (Last weekend I was fishing with Garman and asked what kind of fish he thought I should draw. He said a bowfin would be cool. I ran with it.)

2014 Roughfish.com button

To enter the contest, get an account at roughfish.com, buy the button and/or t-shirt, wait til 12:01AM on June 1st and go fishing. Stop fishing as little as possible. You’ve got 30 days. Each time you catch a new species of fish, take a picture of it and make sure the button (or t-shirt) is in the shot. Post the photos to the site.

Whoever catches the most species wins. (In 2013, it took 43 species to win, while 50 did it in 2012.) The prize is a custom-built fishing rod. Sweet, eh?

There’s also a kids’ division. So far it’s been won by girls both times and I see no reason that will change. My daughter Iris won it the first year and has pledged to fish hard this year in hopes of another trophy.