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Endangered Razorback Sucker Program

The Colorado River was once an environment of extremes. The river flooded each spring as the Rocky Mountain snowpack melted, bringing with it millions of tons of sediment. It was warm, even hot, in late summer as runoff decreased, and in the winter it was shallow and cold. The native fish that inhabited the river were well adapted to these physical and chemical extremes.

The construction of mainstream dams reduced the sediment in the river, allowing sunlight to penetrate through the water and produce an abundance of algae and plant growth. Without the abrasive sediments, small animals were able to colonize the riverbed and banklines as well as the newly formed reservoirs. Introduced fish species such as carp, largemouth bass, channel catfish, and various sunfishes took advantage of these new plant and animal food sources and quickly established and expanded their populations.

Razorback sucker drawingNative fish like the razorback sucker were not well adapted to these biological changes, and their populations slowly declined. The razorback, which is native to North America and found only in the Colorado River Basin, has been around for tens of thousands of years. But few people have seen this fish. Once abundant in the turbulent and unpredictable Colorado River, the razorback sucker is now restricted to a few remnant populations, the largest of which can be found in Lake Mohave.

Several thousand old (generally in excess of 40 years of age) razorback suckers spawn in Lake Mohave but few, if any, of the young fish survive to reach adulthood. This is because the eggs are eaten by carp, sunfish, trout, and many other species of fish. Those that do hatch often become food for young sunfish and other game fish. This fact did not help the 60% population decline from 59,508 in 1988 to 23,313 in 1992. After the razorback was put on the endangered species list in 1991, several organizations began to try to help this fish.

To restore and manage the razorback sucker population in Lake Mohave, the Bureau of Reclamation took the lead in forming a multi-agency Native Fish Work Group. Composed of biologists and resource managers, the primary goalReclamation biologist with young razorback sucker of this seven agency team -- which includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Arizona Game and Fish Department, and Arizona State University -- is to replenish Lake Mohave's older razorback sucker population with young adults.

Each year, using lights and dip nets, biologists of the work group collect wild razorback sucker larvae at spawning grounds in February and March. The larval fish are held in a laboratory for three weeks until they reach one inch in length. The young sucker larvae are then stocked into predator-free isolated rearing coves around the lake or in other locations like the Boulder City, Nevada, golf course or Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery. When the fish are between 8 and 12 inches long and able to avoid most predators, they are released into the lake. At this size, scientists believe that they are big enough to escape predators and live out the rest of their 50 year life span.

Since the first razorback suckers were released into Lake Mohave in 1992, more than 30,000 juvenile razorbacks have been successfully raised and returned to the wild, and more than 100,000 are being reared for release back to the lake. About 50 percent of the fish that have been restocked are believed to be successfully spawning, and fishery biologists believe these fish will help replace the aging population that now inhabits the lake, ensuring the species' continuation.

Though this is not a long-term recovery solution, it is an effective conservation management program. It buys scientists time to investigate a more permanent method of recovering the fish by maintaining their populations. Without aggressive management through stocking, the razorback could easily succumb to extinction in the lower Colorado River Basin and a unique member of America's native fish community would be lost forever.

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Updated: October 2004