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Trout Thriving on Territory; Thirty Years of Fish Management Sees Species Revival

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SUTCLIFFE, Nev. - When wading through the density offish stocks in a
condensed and enclosed area, the trick is to shuffle the feet along the
cement bottom to avoid stepping on anything scurrying below.

From the middle of March, workers at the Pyramid Lake Fisheries in
northwest Nevada will almost literally be swimming with the fishes.
Waist-deep in the man-made channel that juts out into the adjacent lake,
fish culturists will collect thousands of cutthroat trout and begin an
annual process of preserving this species.

While the trout are none too pleased when scooped out of the saltwater,
thrashing about and employing their will to live, ultimately this frenzy is
for their preservation. Since 1975, this Paiute Reservation has taken on
the challenge of reintroducing a previously native fish back into the
waters that lie within its traditional territory.

The extinction of the Lahontan cutthroat trout at Pyramid Lake occurred in
the mid-1940s as a result of the Derby Dam, built in 1905, which slowly
choked off the water route where the fish returned to spawn. Following the
Truckee River from Lake Tahoe 120 miles to the south, the trout lost access
to about 85 percent of the river as it was blocked with the diverted waters
and thus the slow disintegration of the fish for both commercial sales and
local food supply.

Overseeing the operation is production manager Albert John Jr. With two
dozen full time and temporary positions in the tribe's hatcheries, the idea
is to see the cutthroat survive without human intervention.

"The ultimate goal is to get the fish from here all the way to Lake Tahoe
and spawn," John said. "Then the fish would have been recovered and be able
to do it [reproduce] on their own."

Historically, the cutthroat measured four to five feet and consistently
weighed over 30 pounds. Now, the fish are about half that size with the
Fisheries playing an active role in replenishing the 175 square mile
Pyramid Lake, a body of water just slightly smaller than Lake Tahoe.

Still, some credit needs to be taken by the trout itself. Knowing what's
best for the survival, instinctually they return annually said Bob Burns,
the lake operations supervisor for the Fisheries.

"They're used to the smell of the fish feed and the smell of the water
since they're born and raised here, so they'll come back here," Burns
explained about why many of the fish migrate to this exact spot on the
lake.

Each year 600,000 trout are raised and released into Pyramid Lake after an
incubation and rearing period of seven months, with one-fifth of the fish
tagged for data collection. Besides replenishing the lake, the Fisheries
also supplies more than a million eggs for nearby federal and state
hatcheries. In addition to the sale of the eggs, the main economic thrust
of Pyramid Lake Fisheries is the fishing and camping permits sold by the
tribe. About $800,000 is generated yearly that's highlighted by the fishing
derby over two weekends in early February.

The height of this operation, in late March, comes in a condensed time
period that forces the fish culturists to move as quickly as the trout
themselves. For six weeks the trout eggs are collected by hand in a
procedure that although appearing uncomfortable for the animal, is as
painless as possible Burns said.

He noted the females are anaesthetized with a mild sedative that relaxes
their bodies before he milks them.

"We use a needle, that's run by oxygen, and shove it up there, below the
pelvic fin. This will force the air in that forces the eggs out," described
Burns.

He notes this manner is less injurious to the fish than just squeezing the
eggs out by hand which could cause more damage. After obtaining the ova,
the females undergo a 21-day withdrawal period to purge the effects of the
drug. Males though are immediately released upon giving their sperm and are
ready to reproduce again within three days.

Once the eggs are collected, they must be fertilized with sperm within 20
seconds. The combination is stirred by hand before water is added to
preserve the chances of life.

"This seals the egg up because there is a hole in the egg after the sperm
enters," said John.

For an hour, the sperm-egg mixture is inserted into an iodine solution to
kill off any bacteria at a temperature matching the outside water of 48 -
50 degrees.

Transferred into a bucket, counted and labeled, this life form will be
either stored in trays with disinfecting chemicals or placed into
up-dwellers that permit floating with free-flowing water. In 19 - 20 days
eyes formulate and another three weeks later, these tadpoles will be placed
into one of the 28 tanks on site, each 31 feet in diameter and eight feet
deep.

Toward the end of the year, the fish will have grown sufficiently to permit
their release into Pyramid Lake. Four hundred thousand at five inches in
length and another 200,000 seven inches long will vacate the concrete pools
and by next year 30 - 40,000 will return; males 19 - 24 inches, females 17
- 18 inches.