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Tribes’ Moving Forward On Long-Term Plan To Reduce Lake Trout In Flathead Lake
Posted on Friday, October 20, 2017 (PST)

A native bull trout decline in Montana’s Flathead Lake is directly related to the rise of an introduced and non-native species, the lake trout that have inundated the reservoir that backs up behind Hungry Horse Dam.

 

The process to control the population of lake trout began with a Fisheries Management Plan in 2000, with the hopes of also seeing a corresponding rise in the bull trout population.

 

It has now entered a stage in the harvest of lake trout that includes gillnetting -- and a new business for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, according to Barry Hansen of the Confederated Tribes.

 

He gave an overview of the tribes’ program to remove lake trout from the reservoir on the South Fork of the Flathead River at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Fish and Wildlife Committee last week, October 12, in Columbia Falls, Montana.

 

Bull trout were listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the federal Endangered Species Act in June 1998.

 

That removal effort includes increased angling, allowing a limit on lake trout of 100 per day per angler, a fishing derby known as Mack Days, and now a business in which the tribes gillnet for the trout and sell frozen fillets of both lake trout and whitefish in nearby markets and online.

 

Mack Days began in 2002 and recreational angling continues to be an important component of the tribes’ goal to remove 143,000 lake trout every year. That’s a number that biological modeling suggests would allow the bull trout population to rebound, Hansen said.

 

The tribes don’t intend to fully eradicate lake trout, but instead hope to bring the numbers to a point where the bull trout population can rebuild.

 

In one fishing contest, 10 of the anglers caught over 14,000 lake trout. However, only in 2012 and 2015 did the total catch, spring and fall, exceed 50,000 fish, far below the tribes’ annual goal

 

In 2014, the number of fish caught just through angling “hit a plateau and we determined the best tool to expand the harvest is gillnetting,” Hansen said. The tribes’ purchased a gillnet boat and began using it that year.

 

Still, the catch by gillnets was only a little less than 50,000 fish and so the tribes have contracted to have another larger gillnet boat built. Of the 48,617 fish caught with the nets, just 39 were bull trout, so bycatch from netting the fish is low.

 

They use the gillnets only in the southern half of the lake, near reservation facilities, so that they can bring the netted fish to a facility where they filet the fish, freeze them and deliver them to markets.

 

Still, anglers are important to the lake trout reduction program, Hansen said.

 

“The anglers have bought into it,” Hansen said. “They complement us because they are able to catch smaller fish than we can with the nets, as the nets tend to catch juvenile bull trout if the mesh is too small.”

 

The overall effort appears to be working, according to an October 10 Council blog by John Harrison at www.nwcouncil.org

 

“The lake trout population estimates are now beginning to trend downward,” Hansen said. “This is indicative of the early stages of a successful mitigation program.”

 

However, he added at the Council meeting, although “the early signs say the program has been effective on lake trout, there is no hard data to show that the native fish are responding, but that should change with enough time.”

 

The tribes have the equipment and staff for a successful, long-term program, but consistent funding over time is a concern, Harrison’s blog said.

 

“To do this kind of work we need a stable, long-term source of funding, and so we resolved to make this lake trout removal pay for itself,” Hansen said. “We are now marketing and selling lake trout to help pay for the program.”

 

Lake trout and whitefish filets are packaged and frozen and sold in grocery stores and online through a tribal business called Native Fish Keepers, Inc.

 

Also see:

 

--CBB, August 12, 2016, “Tribes’ Efforts Reducing Non-Native Lake Trout In Flathead Lake,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/437296.aspx

 

--CBB, May 16, 2014, “Salish/Kootenai Tribes Pull 5,232 Lake Trout From Flathead Lake In Initial Gill-Netting,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/430810.aspx

 

--CBB, March 14, 2014, “Tribes Publish EIS On Gill-Netting 30,000 Lake Trout In Flathead Lake To Increase Native Trout,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/430011.aspx

 

--CBB, January 10, 2014, “To Aid Listed Bull Trout, Limits Removed On Trophy Size Lake Trout In South Flathead Lake,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/429470.aspx

 

--CBB, October 25, 2013, “Spawning Surveys In Flathead River Tributaries Show Bull Trout Rebound, Stable Population,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/428824.aspx

 

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