Will Non-native Bass Doom Miramichi Salmon?

Photo by Tom Cheney, ASF

The women claimed, falsely, that they hadn’t been consulted. This and other complaints, none grounded in reality, were presented to me by Terry Sappier, one of the Wolastoqey Mothers and Grandmothers. “Nobody’s going to poison our water,” she declared. “How do you know this whole thing by the Atlantic Salmon Federation isn’t only to protect those million-dollar salmon pools instead of somebody’s water? We need to ensure that the underwater ground source  is protected so we have clean drinking water in our province. You can’t just dump poison in headwaters and think that in a year it’s going to be okay.” (After several weeks rotenone can’t affect ponded water because it’s not there; and it can’t get into groundwater even when it is there.) “Animals depend on that water.” (Rotenone can’t harm any terrestrial or aquatic creature that respires with lungs.)

“It can cause Parkinson’s disease, cancer and I’m not sure what else,” continued Sappier. (Rotenone used in fisheries management can’t cause Parkinson’s, cancer or any other malady.) “There’s a fish disease coming from the hatcheries. I can’t remember the name.” (“Infectious salmon anemia,” she later emailed me.) “This is what’s hurting our Atlantic salmon, not smallmouth bass.” (ISA isn’t  present in the Miramichi. It comes from aquaculture pens, and there aren’t any in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.)

Similar fallacies were posted on the forum “Connecting to the Land,” dedicated to “indigenous resurgence.” Two examples: “This is ecocide. Someone brought this fish here. They can still be eaten. They can still be fished. You don’t kill the entire biodiversity of a lake to get rid of one species… The damage impacts every creature using the lake. Wild fowl, eagles, land animals, etc.” And: “We are here for the heart of our land. We cannot let them poison the heart, it will be our demise. They do not have to destroy an ecosystem. This cannot and will not happen!”

Meanwhile the 16 cottage owners were in full cry, dredging from the Internet urban legends about rotenone and the even-shorter-lived emulsifiers that help it mix with water. They falsely asserted: that rotenone enables Parkinson’s disease; that it’s a “biocide”; that it “can completely eliminate”invertebrates. (Most invertebrates survive treatment; and populations of those that don’t quickly recover, often doing better because they don’t get eaten by non-native fish); that the lakeshore would be fouled by rotting fish (they’d be collected); and that rotenone might kill mussels including the brook floater, listed as a “species at risk.” (Mussels are unaffected by 75 PPB rotenone, and eradicating smallmouth bass would benefit the brook floater by eliminating bass predation of native host fish to which the mussel attaches its larvae). The camp owners even speculated that nighthawks might be deprived of insects and a single pair of eagles might be deprived of fish. (There’d be no shortage of insects anywhere and  no shortage of fish in nearby waters easily accessible to the two eagles. In fact, there’d be no shortage of fish in the lake itself once evacuated natives had been returned).

The one thing the camp owners and the Wolastoqey Mothers and Grandmothers got right was that rotenone treatments sometimes don’t work. Usually they do, however. The U.S. success rate is 87 percent, and failures can be corrected with follow-up treatments.

On September 22, 2021, opposition and cold weather forced the Working Group to cancel the project at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. It will try again in 2022, 14 years after smallmouth bass were discovered in Miramichi Lake—kind of like locking the barn door after all horses have left the stable, province and country.

As a life-long Atlantic salmon advocate I was, of course, angered and dismayed by the demise of the 2021 bass-eradication project. But I was hardly surprised. I’ve seen exactly the same scenario play out dozens of times in the U.S., where our invasive fish crisis dwarfs Canada’s.

For most of the public fish don’t count as wildlife. Fish are furless, featherless, cold, slimy, silent and generally unseen. On hearing the word “rotenone” and learning it’s a “poison” people often rush to their computers and load Google, whereupon they’re deluged with facts and frightening fiction. They consistently select the latter, then wax hysterical. For example, when California rotenoned Lake Davis to remove illegally introduced pike that threatened endangered Chinook salmon and steelhead of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River system, opponents held all-night candlelight vigils and marches. “Burn in Hell, Fish & Game!” read placards. Protesters shouted “Shame Shame”; others wept; others cursed; still others swam out and chained themselves to buoys. A SWAT team and 270 state agents were deployed for crowd control. Rotenone opponents imagine that angler amusement is the sole motive for invasive fish eradication.

This, for instance, is how Wilderness Watch dismisses Gila trout recovery, mandated by the U.S. Endangered Species Act and in which 100 miles of alien-infested streams have been reclaimed with rotenone: “It is both sad and ironic that it was Aldo Leopold who convinced the Forest Service to protect the Gila [National Forest] as our nation’s first wilderness in the 1930s—now, it is in danger of being converted to a fish farm for recreationists.”

“When you Google rotenone the first thing you see is Parkinson’s disease,” remarks Steve Maricle, the fisheries biologist who led a successful rotenone project to eradicate illegally introduced smallmouth bass and yellow perch from 13 lakes that feed the Thompson River, now the only large river system in southern British Columbia free of these aliens.

Rotenone opponents invariably claim there’s a “link” between rotenone and Parkinson’s. There isn’t. The myth derives from an old Emory University study in which rotenone at millions of times the concentration used in fisheries management was mainlined into rats’ brains via pumps implanted under their skin. After 18 months no rat had Parkinson’s disease. The researchers merely wanted to establish a “Parkinson’s-like condition”—i.e., tremors—in an animal model.

Rotenone health studies, none conclusive, have focused on farm workers who, often with no protective gear, had for years applied rotenone powder at millions of times the concentration used in fisheries management. Warning against parts-per-billion rotenone use to save native fish on suspicion that agricultural use might increase risk of Parkinson’s is like warning against dental X-rays because first-responders at Chernobyl suffered radiation sickness.

In the U.S. rotenone has safely and successfully slowed loss of Gila topminnows, steelhead, all five species of Pacific salmon, kokanee salmon, Yellowstone cutthroat trout, westslope cutthroats, Bonneville cutthroats, Lahontan cutthroats, Colorado River cutthroats, fluvial Arctic grayling, landlocked Arctic char, redband trout, rainbow trout and brook trout, to mention just a few. And it has prevented extinction of desert pupfish, golden trout, Volcano Creek golden trout, Gila trout, Apache trout, greenback cutthroat trout and Paiute cutthroat trout.

This last fish is indigenous to just 11 miles of California’s Silver King Creek. Paiute cutthroats were being hybridized off the planet by non-native rainbow trout. But recovery was derailed for 20 years with appeals, lobbying and litigation by anti-rotenone groups and individuals. This cost the state and feds hundreds of thousands of dollars and nearly ushered the Paiute cutthroat into oblivion. The loudest opponents were Wilderness Watch, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Friends of Silver King Creek, Laurel Ames, Ann McCampbell of the Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Task Force of New Mexico (a group basically consisting of herself ), Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Rivers Council, California Watershed Alliance, Beyond Pesticides, Defenders of Wildlife and Nancy Erman.

In litigation to enjoin the project the first five of these opponents got pro bono representation from the Western Environmental Law Center. In 2011 the Law Center fired off this press release, wrongly attributed to case attorney Peter Frost and identical to mythology heard in New Brunswick: “The poison does not just kill the fish in the water but the entire ecosystem, including turtles, snakes, frogs, birds, terrestrials, insects and other animals that live in or drink from the poisoned water.” Again, rotenone applied by fisheries managers cannot harm any organism, terrestrial or aquatic, that respires with lungs. Despite my requests for a retraction, the Center stood by its false claims until October  2021 when  I again complained about the release, this time to Frost. To his and the Center’s credit a retraction was then issued. Today the Paiute cutthroat is the only salmonid in the world restored to 100 percent of its range. This couldn’t have happened without rotenone.

In Montana, Wilderness Watch, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan, Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force and Conservation Congress trotted out precisely the same wives’ tales about rotenone spun in New Brunswick, thereby blocking (at least for 2021) projects that would have slowed the ongoing demise of two native fish.

In the Blackfoot River system 67 miles of stream and three lakes would have been cleared of non-native trout to create a genetic and thermal refuge for westslope cutthroats, endangered in fact if not by federal decree. And in the Yellowstone River system one lake and 47 miles of stream would have been cleared of non-native trout to create another genetic and thermal refuge—this for Yellowstone cutthroats, which have been eliminated from 97 percent of their historic range.

If it’s not too late to cleanse the Miramichi of smallmouth bass, what can be done to prevent future infestations and bureaucratic torpor? I put the question to one of the most avid proponents of bass eradication—the Honorable Mike Holland, New Brunswick’s Minister of Natural Resources and Energy.

“The province is committed to working with DFO to develop a stronger partnership where we have ability to react to situations in a much more real-time fashion,” he said. “Five provinces have MOUs with DFO giving them more influence over their water systems. Frankly I feel that if our province had ability to control some of the work related to this situation, it [bass infestation of the river] wouldn’t have happened.”

Steve Maricle—the B.C. fisheries biologist who used rotenone to save the Thompson River’s sockeye salmon run (world’s largest) along with its Chinook salmon, cohos, pinks, bull trout and rainbow trout, told me this: “Because of opposition I’d seen everywhere else I thought I wouldn’t succeed. But I decided to at least make a stab so I could sleep at night. I had some good advice: Explain the problem first; tell how bad the infestation will be. Don’t go in talking about the solution. We did our best to share scientific information. On all the lakes we treated we measured how rotenone and all the carriers diminish quickly.”

Maricle came to New Brunswick to advise the Working Group and help with planning. “My main message,” he says, “was that rotenone is the only option and that treatments are brief. When invasive fish get established, they’re forever. If you really care about the natural aquatic environment, you have to take action.”

His other message was: “Don’t let a few self-centered, naïve individuals sacrifice a very valuable watershed through ignorance. They hear the word ‘poison,’ and they jump to conclusions.”          

Ted Williams wrote and edited for Gray’s from 1976 to 1989. He writes about fish and wildlife conservation for national publications and serves as national chair for the Native Fish Coalition (https://nativefishcoalition.org/)