Esox lucius is very much piscis non grata in Washington these days.
Northern pike were reclassified as a prohibited level 1 species, the highest designation, by the Fish and Wildlife Commission late last week, a move that will focus more resources on the fight to keep the “highly invasive” species out of the Columbia below Chief Joseph Dam and other state waters.
“The gist is that moving from level 3 to level 1 allows for higher level actions to address things, to eradicate them once they get into the anadromous zone,” says WDFW’s Eric Winther.
It means that when pike get into the waters where salmon and steelhead smolts swim downstream of the dam, the governor can declare an environmental emergency, which would trigger a wider mobilization of resources.
It’s another sign of how seriously fishery managers are taking the situation.
Illegally introduced pike have been slowly moving down the Pend Oreille and Upper Columbia over the past 15 years or so and are creeping closer and closer to Grand Coulee Dam.
It’s all but inevitable they will get below Chief Joe, and to that end, Winther has been tasked with coming up with a rapid response plan and says measures could include gillnetting.
That has already proven to be effective for targeting spawning flats on Lake Roosevelt and Box Canyon Reservoir, where pike gather in spring, he says.
As area tribes, WDFW, public utility districts have teamed up to control pike, knowledge of where northerns go to procreate is increasing.
Winther says other possibilities could include chemical treatments, though he notes rotenoning would be difficult in the Columbia outside of perhaps isolated bays, while long-line fishing is also being considered.
He says that elevating pike to level 1 also means that eDNA tools can be brought into the battle. A newfangled type of early-warning system, essentially the environment — water in this case — can be scanned for traces of pike poo, scales, mucus, etc., etc.
Even as Caspian terns, walleye, harbor seals and other piscovores chomp down heavily on young Chinook, coho, steelhead and other seagoing fish, the relatively early stage of the pike outbreak and their lower numbers mean we’re in a better place than with those other issues.
“Once you’ve got a problem, it costs a lot more to deal with it,” Winther says.
Pike prefer to eat fish with soft rays, like salmonids, which are hugely important to sport and commercial fishermen and tribal fishermen, and more and more emphasis is also being placed on getting more Chinook into the ocean for starving southern resident orcas to eat as returning adults.
Winther says that the state Invasive Species Council will be requesting money for eDNA testing as well.
Winther says that he hopes to have the response plan out for review by the end of the year.
In the meanwhile, efforts will also be made to increase public awareness about the danger of northern pike through brochures, stickers and sportsmen’s shows.
It’s believed that the fish were illegally introduced into the Pend Oreille River from Idaho’s Lake Couer d’Alene system, where they’d been illegally introduced after being illegally introduced in western Montana waters.
“We’re letting people (who catch one) know to kill it and report it. That helps us get a handle on this,” Winther says.
There is no limit on pike in Washington. As I once advised after a bass angler inexplicably released one illegally placed into Lake Washington, if you catch a northern, “Slash its gills, slit its belly, hack it in half, singe the carcass over high heat.”
Editor’s note: The initial version of this blog misreported the new classification of pike as level 3. Rather, they were reclassified as a level 1 prohibited species. We regret the error.