What to do about a nasty fish

  • Portola, Calif., residents protest plans to poison Lake Davis

    Peggy Garner
 

When California fisheries biologists discovered northern pike in Lake Davis, 70 miles north of Lake Tahoe, they had a fix: 26,000 gallons of poison.

Killing all the fish in the Plumas County lake would prevent the voracious, non-native pike from migrating down the Feather River to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where they could destroy the state's multimillion-dollar commercial sport-fishing industry. The California Department of Fish and Game had successfully used a similar tactic in 1991.

At Lake Davis, however, the bureaucrats in Sacramento faced opposition from Portola's 2,500 residents, whose domestic water supply comes from the lake. In the nearly three years since the state announced its $2 million plan to temporarily poison their drinking water, Portola residents have petitioned and protested, marched on the state capital and sued the Fish and Game department.

"People first! Pike Second! Poison Never!" read the T-shirts they wear to public rallies. They even have a fight song, "Hey, Mr. Fish and Game," composed by a local businessman.

Far more is at stake than one rural lake teeming with predatory pike, say state fish experts. Left alone, the razor-toothed invaders are certain to move downstream and feed on native salmon and steelhead, says Banke E. Curtis, a regional manager with the California Department of Fish and Game. To prevent that, officials plan this fall to spray Lake Davis with Nusyn-Noxfish, a fish poison containing rotenone. The chemicals, which kill fish by coating their gills, pose no human health hazard and would be undetectable after two months, Curtis says.

But critics of the state project fear Nusyn-Noxfish will also affect the health of the people who drink Lake Davis water. Among its chemicals are confirmed animal carcinogens, they say.

"People were told attending atomic explosions was safe, too," says Joseph Moctezuma, a former Portola mayor.

No one welcomes the pernicious pike to California waters, says Harry G. Reeves, an angler who sued the state in a legal action joined by Portola and Plumas County.

Reeves' solution is eradicating the invader species with nets or water drawdowns. Poisoning Lake Davis is "ecological management by death," he says.

Last May, a Superior Court judge halted the Lake Davis project until the state provides an alternative source of drinking water for Portola and adjacent communities. On June 2, the state Senate approved legislation which would block the project altogether unless state health officials first determine that it is safe.

Fish and Game officials will supply an alternative water supply for as long as the health department says it is necessary, says Curtis. "We want a safe treatment that takes care of fish and wildlife in this state," he says.

Meanwhile, oblivious to the controversy, northern pike may have already advanced down the Feather River to the delta. A state Fish and Game department employee reported finding an eight-inch pike near Sacramento in December.

Jane Braxton Little freelances from Plumas County, California.