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