Concerned about the spread of northern pike in Washington waters, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is gearing up for a spring campaign to halt the advance of the voracious, non-native fish toward the Columbia River.
In the coming months, state fishery managers plan to enlist anglers to remove as many northern pike as possible from the Pend Oreille River, a conduit for pike moving downstream from Idaho and Montana.
"Anglers can play a major role in this effort," said John Whalen, WDFW’s regional fish program manager in Spokane. "Come spring, we’re going to need their help to keep northern pike from invading the Columbia River."
A new webpage (http://wdfw.wa.gov/ais/esox_lucius/ ) on WDFW’s website outlines the rapid proliferation of northern pike in the Pend Oreille River since 2004 and the threat they pose to native fish species.
Biological surveys conducted in conjunction with the Kalispel Tribe and Eastern Washington University reveal a dramatic decline in native minnows, largemouth bass, yellow perch and other fish species that inhabit the 55-mile Box Canyon Reservoir.
"Non-native northern pike are high-impact predators of many other fish," Whalen said. "We’re increasingly concerned about future impacts to native trout and other species, including salmon and steelhead."
Fish managers have traced the movement of northern pike into the Pend Oreille River from rivers in Montana, where they were stocked illegally. Last spring, Canadian anglers reported catching them in the Columbia River near its confluence with the Pend Oreille, just north of the border between Washington state and British Columbia.
The current distribution of pike in Washington includes Box Canyon and Boundary dam reservoirs on the Pend Oreille River and the Spokane River from Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho to Lake Spokane (Long Lake) in Spokane County.
There have also been several pike caught on hook and line in the Columbia River upstream from Kettle Falls.
“In the last couple of years their movement has carried them further downstream into Boundary Reservoir and with the high water levels of 2011, into the Columbia River,” according to the WDFW. “Anglers reported catching pike in the Columbia River during the summer of 2011 just north of the border in British Columbia, near Northport in Washington and near China Bend, just upstream of Kettle Falls.”
Kettle Falls is near the head of Lake Roosevelt, the 150-mile-long reservoir held back by Grand Coulee Dam. Should the pike move past Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph Dam, located 51 miles downstream, they would be in salmon territory. Salmon passage to historic habitat is now blocked by the dams, but they inhabit the mainstem below the dam and nearby tributaries.
The immediate concern is increasing numbers and distribution to the point of impacting vulnerable native species of trout, other game fish and non-game fish and even salmon and steelhead further down the Columbia River system, according to WDFW.
"That’s a big concern," Whalen said. "If northern pike start spreading down the Columbia River, they could create significant ecological and economic damage."
Kalispel tribal officials believe the pike were moved downstream from Montana’s Clark Fork-Flathead system, where they were initially introduced illegally in the 1970s or 1980s. The pike were likely flushed down the Clark Fork River, into north Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille, and then into its outlet, the Pend Oreille River, during the flooding that resulted in 1997 during the meltdown of one of the biggest snowpacks on record.
Other states in the western United States, including Alaska, that have non-native populations of northern pike, are facing challenges similar to Washington. Although northern pike are native to much of Alaska, they are not native to the south-central part of the state where they have been illegally stocked and are considered invasive.
According to WDFW, pike have caused severe damage to native trout and salmon runs in several south-central Alaska watersheds and Washington is trying to learn from those events in order to prevent similar damage from occurring here.
Earlier this year, WDFW held public meetings in Spokane and Newport to discuss possible options for controlling northern pike. Regardless of what other methods are used, anglers represent a major line of defense, Whalen said.
"These fish average 2-3 pounds, but can run up to 30 pounds apiece," he said, noting that there are no daily catch limits or size limits on northern pike in Washington.
To help reduce the pike population, WDFW has proposed changing state fishing regulations to allow anglers to fish with two poles in the Pend Oreille River. The department has also proposed stripping the northern pike from its designation as a "game fish," while continuing to classify it as a "prohibited species" that cannot lawfully be transported to state waters.
"That change would help clarify our management goals," Whalen said. "Anglers could keep fishing for them, but the change in designation would signal that the priority is to control the spread of northern pike and their impact on native fish species."
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, which sets policy for WDFW, will hear public testimony on that and other proposed fishing rule changes during a public meeting scheduled Jan. 6-7 in Olympia.
WDFW will also accept written comments on those proposals through Dec. 30. The commission is scheduled to take action on those proposals at a public meeting Feb. 3-4 in Olympia.
For more information on the rule-making process, see the WDFW website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/regulations/rule_proposals/ .