No dumping; fish removal begins at Desert Garden

ST. GEORGE — A project to remove illegally dumped fish and restore native species is underway at the Red Hills Desert Garden.

Biologists began capturing native fish and draining the stream at Red Hills Desert Garden Monday morning, St. George, Utah, Aug. 22, 2016 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News
Biologists began capturing native fish and draining the stream at Red Hills Desert Garden Monday morning, St. George, Utah, Aug. 22, 2016 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

“We set this garden up to be a place where the community could come and see the native fish of the Virgin River,” Steve Meismer, local coordinator for the Virgin River Program, said. “So we wanted people to be able to see those.”

Meismer and other biologists began catching native fish and draining the stream at the Red Hills Desert Garden early Monday morning. The project will take most of this week and cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

“What has happened here, because someone illegally introduced goldfish and a couple of other species,” Meismer said, “is that those species are now taking over the stream and not allowing the reproduction of the native fishes that we have in here.”

Read more: Intruder alert: Illegal fish dumped in Desert Garden stream

Biologists first tried capturing the nonnative fish from the stream, Meismer said, and an estimated 1,000 goldfish have been removed from the stream. Additional efforts that biologists tried included the use of electroshock, seining nets and hoop nets; none of these were successful enough and at least 1,000 goldfish remained when it was decided to drain and treat the stream.

An endangered Virgin River chub. Biologists began capturing native fish and draining the stream at Red Hills Desert Garden Monday morning, St. George, Utah, Aug. 22, 2016 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News
An endangered Virgin River chub. Biologists began capturing native fish and draining the stream at Red Hills Desert Garden Monday morning, St. George, Utah, Aug. 22, 2016 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

“Our big focus is the Virgin River chub,” Meismer said. The chub and the woundfin minnow are both endangered and have been stocked in the Desert Garden stream.

Mature chubs of 12-14 inches were transplanted into the stream in the spring of 2015, Meismer said, and reproduced successfully. Young chub hatched in 2015 are now 5-6 inches long.

“We have not seen any other chub reproduction this year, and that is one of the main reasons we’re looking to get rid of the nonnatives – they’ve become so numerous,” Meismer said.

Goldfish, along with now thriving populations of mosquitofish and green sunfish, are all believed to have been dumped illegally in the stream by visitors, Meismer said, likely in an attempt to find pet fish a new home.

While goldfish are typical aquarium stock, mosquito fish and green sunfish are not. Meismer believes those were captured and brought home for a time.

Biologists began capturing native fish and draining the stream at Red Hills Desert Garden Monday morning, St. George, Utah, Aug. 22, 2016 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News
Biologists began capturing native fish and draining the stream at Red Hills Desert Garden Monday morning, St. George, Utah, Aug. 22, 2016 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

“Somebody may have gone to the nearest stream and happened to catch the green sunfish or mosquito fish, took it home to their aquarium for a while … as kids do,” Meismer said.

“Please don’t dump fish into the stream,” Meismer said. “Don’t move live fish from one body of water to another, whether that’s from your aquarium to a pond; whether that’s from an aquarium to a river. Don’t move ’em.”

Native fish and recreational fishing are both threatened by nonnative species that become established. For example, Gunlock Reservoir was chemically treated last fall and restocked in April to kill smallmouth bass that had been illegally introduced, Meismer said.

Gunlock had been a really good largemouth bass fishery for a number of years, he said, but now has to start over from scratch.

“So that great opportunity of all those largemouth bass is going to be delayed for a few years.”

“Don’t move fish, don’t move anything,” Meismer said. “It just is such a big problem throughout the United States. Not just fish but with plants and things like that. We have huge issues with nonnative species taking over native communities.”

Biologists began capturing native fish and draining the stream at Red Hills Desert Garden Monday morning, St. George, Utah, Aug. 22, 2016 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News
Biologists began capturing native fish and draining the stream at Red Hills Desert Garden Monday morning, St. George, Utah, Aug. 22, 2016 | Photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

Native fish captured Monday at the Desert Garden are being kept in aerated coolers full of water while waiting to be quickly transferred to a larger tank at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in Hurricane.

As soon as the water is safe, the fish will be released back into the Desert Garden stream, Meismer said.

Tuesday, biologists plan to treat the remaining water to be treated with rotenone, which is expected to decompose within 24 hours, he said.

If all goes well, the native fish will be reintroduced into the stream Friday and the Desert Garden is tentatively scheduled to reopen to the public that day.

The $3 million Red Hills Desert Garden was opened in May 2015 with the goal of demonstrating and promoting water conservation and landscaping principles while offering visitors a pleasant place to learn about the environment and the six native fish species of the Virgin River.

Click on photo to enlarge it, then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.

Email: japplegate@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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9 Comments

  • Lastdays August 22, 2016 at 4:15 pm

    Can’t help but laugh at this situation. This will probably happen a few more times in years to come and then it will just be a permanent goldfish park.

  • .... August 22, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    They just as well start turning this into a Japanese garden now. because the goldfish is coming. and the more they tell people not to put their goldfish in there. the more people will do it

  • hiker75 August 22, 2016 at 5:46 pm

    I have to agree with you. The Water Conservancy is very extravagant with tax payer money. I cannot understand why they would build a stream in the middle of a ‘desert’ garden. Leave native fish alone! How many were harmed being moved from their natural habitat to this fake river? Let’s start conserving water, Water Conservancy!

    • Lastdays August 22, 2016 at 6:25 pm

      Not to worry. The endangered fish are bred in a hatchery in AZ and stocked in the Virgin River. Sounds like there will be an endless supply of “Endangered” fish for the Virgin River. Well, isn’t that special.

  • aviatormh August 23, 2016 at 1:49 am

    It’s these dang tree hugging liberals that think they are doing something good when they are actually doing harm but refuse to believe that they could possibly be doing something harmful because they are always in the right. Besides the laws only apply to the peasants

  • Common Sense August 23, 2016 at 6:59 am

    I love this desert garden. When I heard there was goldfish in it we stopped by to check it out. Sure enough, goldfish! I thought it was neat. I also saw LOTS of native fish. It didn’t look like they were struggling to me. Here’s the thing..like the Boilers, people will continue to illegally dump fish in this “non-native” river. Why cant we just enjoy whatever fish are in it? I know a bumpy road this $10,000 project money could be better spent on. Besides, the windows to see the “native fish” are always cloudy and you can NEVER see them anyway.

  • wilbur August 23, 2016 at 10:16 am

    I’m sure “native fish” were up there thousands of years ago – just that no one has seen them since.

    And who says a goldfish isn’t a native fish?

  • Ron August 24, 2016 at 11:40 am

    When is Ron Thompson going to go away?

  • Ron August 24, 2016 at 11:46 am

    Sounds like the people of this community are doing their part in fighting unemployment by dumping “illegal” fish into this fake stream. What a scheme…. Dump “illegal” fish, close the Garden for a week or two, have DNR employees collect the “illegal” fish, refill fake stream, put “legal” fish back into fake stream. Give is few weeks, (more “illegal” fish dumped), repeat process.
    Your tax dollars at work. When is Ron Thompson going to go away?

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