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.

Please wait while the player loads. Note: you must have Javascript enabled and the Adobe Flash Player installed.

 

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?"

High Country News Classifieds
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING MANAGER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • CARPENTER RANCH MANAGER
    Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.