The Fishery, and The Fishermen
by Lee Allen
From a journalistic standpoint, it’s no big deal when politicians talk to each other because such interactions frequently involve lots of verbiage with little actual listening. When politicians of a different ilk start to actually communicate, exchange ideas, and begin to understand that someone else may actually have the better idea, interest starts to build. But when representatives of disparate political entities listen, discuss, agree, and then actually set aside ideologies, roll up their sleeves, and work together toward the common good, that’s bona fide news that deserves to be reported.
It happened recently at one of the nine national wildlife refuges on the Arizona side of the Colorado River, part of the more than 1.7 million acres of outdoor recreation space available to those who love, respect and want to perpetuate nature in our neck of the woods. Dedication ceremonies were held at the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge, south of Lake Havasu City, to announce completion of a three-pronged project that will benefit the fish, the fishery, and the fishermen/women who frequent the waters bordered by 400 miles of coastline on both sides of the waterway.
A Fruitful Partnership
“This project had all the usual bottlenecks involving entities with differing agendas, inter-departmental bureaucracies, and tons of red tape from the federal and state level to tribal and local governments,” said Duane Shroufe, Director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “Every time you put additional layers into a project of this size, you can run into all sorts of trouble and this project had all the potential to do so. Fortunately for everyone concerned, a prevalent can-do attitude overcame any obstacles. This is probably the first time in my career a project of this magnitude concluded ahead of schedule and under budget.” Game and Fish Commissioner Hays Gilstrap summed up the uniqueness of this public/private venture as one where diversified interests put aside differences and worked together toward a united goal. “The common good won out over separate political ideologies to the benefit of all parties concerned,” he said. “Wildlife doesn’t know about inter-agency agendas or state boundaries. The fish don’t know which side of the river they’re on, so we needed to make living conditions better on both sides of the river.”
And they have, in a $14.8 million dollar project lead by seven principle partners. The Fisheries Improvement Project, founded in 1993 to rejuvenate that depleted reservoir fishery, chose the Bureau of Land Management as lead agency. BLM was joined by the Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, Game and Fish Departments from both California and Arizona, Southern California's Metro Water District, and Anglers United. Special contributions were also made by a host of interested parties ranging from Navy Sea Bees to members of the Colorado River Indian Tribes.
Habitat Regeneration and the Payoff
Lake Havasu, formed in 1938 with the completion of Parker Dam, was getting tired and its waters weary due to a lack of habitat regeneration. The restoration project submerged organic and synthetic habitat in more than 40 coves representing nearly 900 acres. In the process, largemouth bass were given more than 65,000 housing shelters and flathead and channel catfish are now competing for lodging among the 55,000 catfish condos sunk in the river. As many as 12,000 brush bundles, weighed down by cinder blocks, have settled on the riverbed where they will attract plankton, baitfish and, ultimately, gamefish.
“Organic brush bundles to replace those dropped a decade ago when we first started out will decompose and melt away over time,” said Project Director Kirk Koch, who has spent the last 9 _ years at the site. “While we want to get fresh brush back on the lake bottom, we want to intersperse it with artificial habitat [inorganic structure such as PVC pipe, sewer pipe, snow fence, and other indestructible products]. There’s a synergistic effect when you add organic material to synthetic structure. It tends to hold more fish and provide greater species diversity. In the last year, we’ve seen some impressive results with much greater use of the fishery as well as more and bigger sportfish.”
Under the theory that 90 percent of the fish live in 10 percent of the lake, the return on investment in sinking sportfish structure is a proven equation. “The whole idea about habitat improvement,” says Arizona Game and Fish Fisheries Chief Larry Riley, “is to congregate fish where people can get to them. One of the problems we have on these big desert reservoirs is habitat with a limited lifetime. Hopefully this combination of natural and man-made habitat will last longer and make this a more fish-friendly place.”
Lake Havasu is already home to striped bass of gigantic proportions. Imported from California in the early 1960’s, 50-pound, 50-inch fish are not uncommon. These waters once gave up a world record for land-locked striped bass, and Arizona’s current state record, set in 1997, is a 67-pounder. Havasu is also blessed with largemouth bass, catfish, crappie, rainbow trout and some monster carp, like the record 42-pounder hauled into a boat in 1979.
Rescuing Endangered Species
Another primary focus of the fisheries improvement project was to augment dwindling populations of two endangered species fish, the razorback sucker and the bonytail chub. Since Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock nearly four centuries ago, more than 500 species, subspecies and varieties of plants and animals in the U. S. are thought to have become extinct, and Arizona has its share of fish in troublemore than half the state’s 36 native fish species are in the endangered category. To prevent further dwindling of fishes once so abundant they received little attention, 30,000 razorback suckers have been re-stocked. One of the largest suckers in North America, the razorback can grow up to three feet long and weigh more than 13 pounds as it feeds on organic material strained from the water. Nearly half of a planned stocking of 30,000 bonytail chub, considered by some to be the most endangered fish in the Colorado River, have also rejoined the existing population and that effort continues as more hatchery-raised fish are made available.
“We have a cooperative venture with U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service where we do the grow-out part of endangered fish restoration,” said Charley Land, Wildlife Manager, Colorado River Indian Tribes Fish and Game Department. “Fish hatched at Willow Beach Hatchery are transferred to our Achii Hanyo native fish facility, grown larger in our holding ponds and then restored to river waters.”
Success of the re-stocking efforts are becoming tangible. The Associated Press reports that some twenty years ago wildlife officials could find only one razorback in the entire lake. “In 2002, an aerial survey by the Fish and Wildlife Service spotted a school of as many as 100 of the suckersthe first time anything like that had been seen in decades,” according to an AP wire story.
The money, time and effort put into this project have brought about changes that are expected to end up re-creating recreation in the area. Sportfishing and all the activities associated with it are making cash registers ring a tune not heard before approximately $34 million a year in fishing-generated-revenue according to economist Bernard Anderson in a report for American Sportfishing Association. And, according to FishAmerica Foundation Director Tom Marshall, “There’s been an increase in license sales and angler satisfaction. Havasu catch rates have increased 60 percent in the last five years. Before the project, anglers fished Havasu about 43,000 days a year. Now angling use has more than quadrupled to over 175,000 angler-use days per year.” Another sign the fishery and the fishing are improving is the fact that professional bass tournaments have increased tenfold since the project got underway with as many as 70 tournaments a year held on the increasingly-productive waters.
Anglers with disabilities now have an opportunity to enjoy what was once a difficult-to-access shoreline. One major aspect of the fisheries improvement plan was to create six barrier-free public fishing access developments with amenities. Five have already been completed, with the newest additions added to a man-made peninsula formed with excavated dirt from the Central Arizona Project inlet structure and its mountainside tunneling. “I walked that spit of land when it was a breakwater for the CAP pumping station,” said Koch. “It was boulder-strewn with banks that were hardly accessible, pretty rough-and-tumble stuff. Dump truck after dump truck load was dropped into the lake, flattened out and landscaped to make it look like it had always belonged here.”
Today a quarter-mile of paved, handicapped-accessible trails connect three fishing piers, five shade ramadas, restrooms, and fish-cleaning stations for the luckier anglers. In excess of 250 native shrubs and trees and a butterfly garden provide color and beauty, and solar power panels supply electricity along the trails and to area lighting. A non-motorized boat ramp provides a safe location to launch rowboats, kayaks and canoes.
Completion of the project is being heralded universally by anglers and politicians alike. Governor Janet Napolitano called it “a celebration of collaboration and conservation and a model of what can be accomplished.” Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton went a step further, noting, “separately we might not have a chance to accomplish a task like this, but together we have proven we can get the job done. The Lake Havasu Fisheries Improvement Project will prove to be a springboard of better things to come.”
See It for Yourself
Famed Western author Zane Grey had a philosophy that “it is difficult to talk to people who are not particularly interested in the value of a river.” If you’d like to see for yourself what the talking is all about, Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge is easy to spot. Find Arizona Highway 95 running parallel to Colorado River waters, and look for milepost 160, less than 20 miles south of Lake Havasu City, home of the famed London Bridge. Forty years ago, the bridge, centerpiece of the western Arizona water town, was moved block-by-block from London and re-constructed at a cost of $10 million dollars. The newest improvements will help ensure that London Bridge isn’t the only outdoor attraction in the area.
There are hotels and motels in Lake Havasu City, with something for every taste and price range. For more information and a complete list. Click Here. (Rates, availability and reservation online)
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