Saving Suckers

Before I moved back to Oregon, I lived and worked as a watershed-related professional in Arizona. As part of that work, I grew to deeply appreciate the mighty Colorado River watershed. The Colorado is an amazing river–it produces thousands of tons of sediment, rises to extreme heights as the snows melt from the Rockies and until the advent of the 20th century dams along most of its reaches, it sometimes flowed with a ferocity that has swept away whole towns along its banks.  Then it drops to lows as the summertime heat bakes the lowest reaches with temperatures in the low 100s.  Within that challenging system, and in spite of the dams, the Colorado and some its tributaries support an amazing variety of wildlife, including fish that look like something out of the movie Jurassic Park. One such fish is the strange and exotic-looking Razorback Sucker. Living for upwards of 50 years and weighing as much as 13 lbs., the 3 foot long fish are adapted to living in the dark, muddy bottomed river.

Razorback Sucker. Illustration by Joseph R. Tomelleri.

But due to the introduction of millions of non-native fish, and because of changes in the loads of sediment and flow patterns thanks to the many large dams on it, most of these fish face extinction or are functionally gone from the main stem for the foreseeable future. Razorbacks are down to roughly 3,500 individuals in the lower river. Others such as the giant (22″) Bonytail minnow are largely gone from the river altogether.

Readers of the June 7th edition of High Country News got a nice dose of the complexities around trying to save the remaining members of these amazing, prehistoric fish. Check out Hillary Rosner’s excellent piece on saving the Razorback Sucker.  For some equally well done work, check out native fish biologist and photographer Abraham Karam’s wonderful slideshow on the sucker and his work in the Lower Colorado River.

Up here in the Pacific Northwest, we are often accused of being pretty salmon-centric in our thinking.  I encourage you to take a few moments away from our own fine-finned fauna to look at another, equally amazing fish and how the complexities of bringing them back from the brink of near extinction are just as vexing.

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