One Tough Sucker

The razorback sucker evolved in a wild Colorado River. Now, humans are its biggest problem -- and its only hope.

  • An adult razorback sucker ready for release back into the wild at Lake Mohave after growing several years in captivity.

    Abraham Karam
  • A razorback sucker is released into Lake Mohave after spending more than three years in captivity. Each fish contains a microchip that gives its history.

    Abraham Karam
  • Biologists use underwater lights to attract, then capture, razorback sucker larvae along the shore of Lake Mohave.

    Abraham Karam
  • The larvae are reared in aquariums at Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery. After a few months, the fish are transfered to heated outdoor raceways where they will grow for three years before being returned to Lake Mohave.

    Abraham Karam
  • Lake Mohave, home to one of the largest and most genetically diverse populations of the endangered razorback sucker.

    Abraham Karam
  • Fish biologists check a trammel net during a fish survey at Lake Mohave.

    Abraham Karam
  • A group of non-native common carp wait to be fed by tourists at a boat dock on Lake Mohave. After their introduction in the 1880s, carp quickly established in the lower Colorado.

    Abraham Karam
 

Sometimes, when you glimpse an endangered species in its native habitat, it becomes a story you can't wait to tell everyone back home. A monkey swinging through the rainforest canopy, a sea turtle laying its eggs on the beach, a tundra flower blooming in a gravel field. But the pair of 10-inch-long razorback suckers I watched a group of biologists pull from nets in Lake Mohave one warm March morning -- and then gently measure, scan, and return to the water -- didn't make my heart skip. They just looked like a couple of slim brown fish.

The story I wanted to tell lay not in what I saw, but what I didn't. Within seven 300-foot-long nets strung in shallow coves, those two suckers were the only representatives of their dwindling species, outnumbered by dozens of corpulent, oily Asian carp.

Over five days of checking the nets morning and evening, Paul Marsh -- a former Arizona State University professor who now runs an independent native fish research lab -- and his crew netted 23 razorback suckers and 184 carp. Elsewhere on the lake, nets strung by teams from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state wildlife agencies fared little better: They snagged a total of 129 razorback suckers and 282 carp, plus a smattering of other fishes not native to the Colorado.

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The groups had gathered on Lake Mohave, a translucent stretch of dammed-up Colorado River on the Arizona-Nevada border north of Laughlin, for the annual weeklong ritual of the Razorback Roundup. Each year for the past two decades, fish biologists from around the Southwest have traveled here to monitor the sucker population, hoping to save it from oblivion.

In coves up and down the lake, more than 40 scientists had trucked in enough provisions to fuel their long days and often soggy work. At Marsh's camp, at the end of a long dirt road stretching west from Kingman, an elaborate kitchen was spread out around the base of a dead mesquite tree. Giant coolers held the ingredients for gourmet meals -- homemade pasta sauce, garlic bread, fresh-baked cookies -- and bottles of beer brewed by Tom Dowling, an ASU geneticist who studies the Mohave sucker population's diversity. Dowling had also packed a meat smoker for a midweek feast of pork and sweet potatoes.

The razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus), one of the four endangered fishes of the mainstem Colorado, is admittedly more fetching in its full-grown glory than the young specimens I met on the lake. Yellow-bellied and fleshy-lipped, the adults, which can grow to 13 pounds, have distinctive keel-like humps just behind their heads. Early Western settlers called them humpback suckers and buffalo fish. When the Colorado ran wild, the fish were abundant, their soft and bony flesh regularly consumed by Native Americans. In the late 1800s, settlers plucked them from the water with pitchforks and used them as livestock feed and fertilizer.

Razorbacks survived in Lake Mohave long after the Davis Dam filled the reservoir in the early 1950s. In fact, the lake once contained the largest population anywhere in the Colorado River Basin.

But by the mid-1980s, scientists had made a worrisome discovery: The Mohave population was still made up largely of the same fish originally trapped by the dam. The razorbacks had spawned year after year, but their hatchlings were snapped up by young green sunfish, channel catfish and other thriving non-native species. Meanwhile, the adult fish were inching closer to the end of their half-century life spans. The population was headed for a massive crash.

Today, after millions of dollars and decades of time spent trying to save the razorback, something is still going wrong. Next year marks 20 years since the fish was officially listed as endangered, but its numbers continue to drop.

"It's a challenge," said Marsh, a slim, graying aquatic ecologist who has devoted 30 years to native fish conservation. On the deck of his 21-foot motorboat, a Britney Spears tune -- not his choice -- rang out from a small boombox, his crew worked the nets, and he stood at the helm, pondering the future of the razorback sucker. "What do we do? How do we change our approach?"