copyright © 1996, Electric Nevada

"We don't say 'poison', we talk about treating the lake," said Patrick O'Brien, senior fisheries biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game.
He was answering questions from Electric Nevada about department's plans to apply rotenone this fall to eradicate Northern Pike in Lake Davis, near Portola. The fish, illegally planted there in recent years, pose a serious threat, in the view of the department, to many native species of California fish downstream from the lake. However, Portola city officials and area residents have objected heatedly to the department plans. [see previous story]
"Rotenone is not a poison in the sense that arsenic and strychnine are poisons," continued O'Brien. "It only affects gill-breathing organisms," like fish and small invertebrates like insect larvae.
Rotenone, he says, is an organic derivative of the roots of the tropical American plant cubé [pronounced 'ku-bay'] which South American Indians used to gather fish. They would chew the roots and then spit them into the water, where the fish, unable to breath, would suffocate and float to the surface. "The Indians then would take the fish home and eat them," said O'Brien.
But rotenone "doesn't hurt other critters that eat it," says O'Brien, adding that deer and cattle and other warm-blooded animals can all drink the water without ill effect. He also said that rotenone has already been tested and used extensively in the Midwest and the East Coast.
O'Brien acknowledges that his department is on the public-relations defensive with people in the Portola area. But he attributes those problems to "a long program of indoctrination," by a few environmentalists "who have fought all the treatments," and have spread misinformation that "whatever they say, they're lying to you and they're going to put poison in your water."
"The people of Portola are good people," he says, but "they're speaking their feelings." He adds that there is no way that either the state Department of Health Services or state law--including the most stringent environmental laws in the country--would allow any 'poisoning' of the water supply.
He said the Department of Fish and Game has done many treatments and has been sued many times, but has never yet lost in court. While emotions may color public discussion, "emotions disappear in court," said O'Brien, "because the judge just has to listen to the evidence."
To objections that the scheduled October application of the rotenone is going to disrupt the Portola area's tourist trade, estimated to produce one-third of local income, O'Brien said locals "don't realize that if Lake Davis is not treated, the pike are going to destroy the lake on their own."
He cited the experience of State of Nevada fish and game officials with Lake Comins, just outside of Ely, in the eastern part of the state. Crammed wall-to-wall with chub (a relative of carp) in the early '80's, said O'Brien, that lake then saw the state introduction of Northern Pike. Since pike only eat other fish, five years later anglers were pulling 30-pound pike out of the water. Seven years later, however, after the pike had eaten all the other species in the lake and had only each other to prey upon, "there were only stunted 12-inch hammerhead pike left."
Electric Nevada spoke with State of Nevada fishery biologists and they supported O'Brien's position, adding, "it's certainly true that pike will eat themselves out of house and home."
California's O'Brien says that "all the specialists" agree: if the pike get downstream from Lake Davis in the Feather River system "the pike population would explode," since the weeds and shallows of the river system are ideal spawning grounds for the pike. At that point, California's quarter-of-a-billion dollar fishing is at risk, he said.
"The pike would take over the whole Delta," said O'Brien, adding that there is no doubt "that the pike, if they remain in Lake Davis, will move downstream."
California can't afford to risk that the great majority of specialists are wrong, he said, adding, "the results could be catastrophic."
Describing how voracious the Northern Pike is as a predator, O'Brien said an 18-inch pike taken out of Frenchman Lake before the pike-eradication program there, revealed, when opened up, a 12-inch trout inside.
O'Brien also says that before Nevada fish and game authorities conducted a pike-eradication

program in the Fernley Marsh, near Reno, fisherman in the marsh had discovered that a very effective lure for the pike was a triple-hooked yellow tennis ball. Consulted biologists say the ball most probably looked to the predatory fish like a baby duckling.
O'Brien also responded to other questions:
Why can't the pike in Lake Davis -- or, conceivably, down stream -- co-exist with other species? Isn't true that in some locales, such as Minnesota, the fish do coexist?
O'Brien: It depends on how good the conditions are for the pike; if they are optimal, like Lake Davis or downriver, the fish will entirely take over.
Why go to all of the trouble and expense of the Lake Davis treatment when there is a significant chance that the people who put the pike into Lake Davis will do it again?
O'Brien: 1) Under the California constitution, the department is required to do its best to protect native species; 2) It would be very unwise to give in to a threat of further lawbreaking; 3) The most likely original source of the pike (which were also in Frenchman Lake), was Nevada's Fernley Marsh, which has undergone a pike-extirpation program, removing the last source within hundreds and hundreds of miles, and 4) It is now illegal, under a California law passed earlier this year, for anyone to possess pike in the state, making legal enforcement of the pike ban much easier.
Did not the department's treatment of Frenchman Lake leave the fishing there damaged?
O'Brien: No. People say they went fishing at Frenchman and it was horrible. But as a biologist, I can only go by the data. And according to the creel census figures [when fish and game people go around the lake and poll fishermen there regarding their catches] the fishing is awesome.
Didn't the rotenone treatment at Frenchman damage that lake's biodiversity?
O'Brien: Not true. What did have a greater than usual impact on the food-chain in the area was the fact that, at the urging of locals, to help the economy there, we did a spring treatment for Frenchman, rather than a fall treatment. But we won't do that again. And then, because Frenchman was closed down entirely -- as it had to be to keep anyone from moving the pike -- a great hue and cry went up about that.
There are alternatives other than rotenone, described in your department's own environmental impact report, for dealing with the Lake Davis pike, but you remain fixated on using that chemical.
O'Brien: None of the other alternatives are as effective, and thus appropriate to the danger the pike pose to California's native species and economy.
What about the risk of the rotenone and the potassium permanganate [the detoxification chemical] not breaking down soon enough, because of the cold fall and winter temperatures inhibiting that process?
O'Brien: We know the breakdown rate at different temperatures, and Lake Davis, as a drinking water source, will be off line for two weeks to a month. We have to get the approval of a myriad of government agencies, and we are going to be very cautious and err on the side of safety -- doubling the amount of time we think it will take.
O'Brien said he met with the Portola City Council Monday, April 8, and answered questions from council members and local people "for many hours," but even though he answered "all their questions", he says, he still doesn't feel that he convinced many.
"In their eyes," he said, "I'm just a government bureaucrat and an outsider. Well, it's true that I've got 32 years with the Department of Fish and Game, and it's true that I'm an outsider to Portola. But it's sort of ironic: I came from a small mountain town just like Portola."

Want to share your opinion? Electric Nevada's comment page is open!

Back to Electric Nevada's front Page