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Fishing for Business

Native Fish Keepers, Inc. spawned to assist in the restoration of native fish to Flathead Lake
By B.L. Azure
Char-Koosta News

The Fisheries program’s fishermen have a new fish story everyday including this whooper brought in last week. From left are Colby Roberts, Woody Red Cloud, Joe Santos and Chris Grenier.  (B.L. Azure photo) The Fisheries programís fishermen have a new fish story everyday including this whooper brought in last week. From left are Colby Roberts, Woody Red Cloud, Joe Santos and Chris Grenier. (B.L. Azure photo)

BLUE BAY — The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have been on the forefront leading the fight against the potential invasion of quagga and zebra mussels in the Flathead Basin, that includes Flathead Lake. They know all too well the negative effects of a non-native species in the lake already. In particular the Lake Superior Whitefish and Mackinaw Lake Trout, which through the years have been a part of the diminishing numbers of native cut throat trout and bull trout. And that has resulted in an ongoing battle to lessen the non-native population for the benefit of the native fishery.

The Tribes are using many weapons for the battle. In April the Tribal Council took action to allow another offensive weapon in the arsenal when it took action that allowed the Natural Resources Department Fisheries program to incorporate a portion of its program. It is called Native Fish Keepers, Inc. and it will help reduce the lake trout population while sating the taste buds of fish lovers.

Brit Courville shows the final packaged product of Native Fish Keepers, Inc. (B.L. Azure photo) Brit Courville shows the final packaged product of Native Fish Keepers, Inc. (B.L. Azure photo)

“This is a part of the Tribes’ effort to control non-native lake trout in Flathead Lake,” said Barry Hansen, Natural Resource Dept. Fisheries program biologist, referring to the Lake Superior Whitefish and Mackinaw Lake Trout.

Hansen said ideally he would like to see the introduced non-native fish eliminated from Flathead Lake but that would be nearly impossible if not impossible to do at this stage. However, controlling or managing the species population is doable but costly since it would have to be ongoing to perpetuity. The Fisheries program has a goal of 75 percent reduction in adult population estimates.

Consequently, Native Fish Keepers, Inc. was formed to provide some monetary backing for the ongoing — perpetual — effort required to control/manage the non-native fishery. The Native Fish Keepers, Inc. plan is to sell whitefish and Mackinaw fillets on the open market with proceeds used for the effort to restore a healthy native fish population in Flathead Lake. They have set up a plant at Blue Bay that processes the fish for the market.

“It is early in the process and we want to get the word out. We have our product in Super 1 in Polson but people can expect to see our fish in restaurants, everywhere soon,” Hansen said.

This is it. Barry Hansen shows off the fish processer that guts, skins and debones fish. It is a prime piece of Native Fish Keepers, Inc. product marketing venture. (B.L. Azure photo) This is it. Barry Hansen shows off the fish processer that guts, skins and debones fish. It is a prime piece of Native Fish Keepers, Inc. product marketing venture. (B.L. Azure photo)

Presently the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes through its NRD Fisheries program is using tribal fishing crews with gill nets, and the spring and fall Mack Days in the effort to control the non-native fisheries population in Flathead Lake.

“We have a permanent fishing crew that helps with our suppression and monitoring effort — to evaluate the status of the fishery,” Hansen said of the on-the-water fishing crew headed by Joe Santos. The fishing crew is not anchored to the lake as they also monitor Flathead Indian Reservation streams and rivers during the summer months. The fall and winter is spent on the lake harvesting and monitoring.

According to Cindy Benson, CEO of Native Fish Keepers, Inc. and head of the fish suppression effort and Mack Days, the Fisheries program already disperses the excess fish harvested at Mack Days and netting through donations to food banks from Missoula to Whitefish. They also donate to Sylvia’s Store, local senior citizen centers, the VFW, American Legion and various church groups.

Brit Courville feeds a de-headed fish into the processing equipment that will spit out clean fish fillets at the other end. (B.L. Azure photo) Brit Courville feeds a de-headed fish into the processing equipment that will spit out clean fish fillets at the other end. (B.L. Azure photo)

The non-native fish story in Flathead Lake had its genesis about a hundred years ago with the introduction of Mysis shrimp upstream from the Flathead in the Ashley, Bitterroot and Whitefish lakes as a fisheries food source. The Mysis shrimp is a self-limiting species due to the adults eating the young or small.

By 1981 the Mysis shrimp were detected downstream in Flathead Lake. Due to its depth the young shrimp were able to go deep in the lake to the cooler water temperatures to hide and avoid predation. However, due to its ability to avoid predation, the Mysis shrimp became a rich source of food and the juvenile lake trout population exploded. The result was the decline in native fish — cutthroat trout and bull trout — populations due to predation by non-native fish.

Cindy Benson (left) and Brit Courville untangle gill nets at the Blue Bay processing plant. (B.L. Azure photo)

As a result of drastic decline in the native fish population the cutthroat and bull trout were listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

In 2000 the Flathead Lake Management Plan was written — it contained more and new fisheries biological information and increased understanding of the Flathead Lake system. It stated the obvious: there was an abundant amount of lake trout in the Flathead, a serious top predator that were having a seriously negative impact on the lake fisheries.

“The Tribes (CSKT) took very seriously the decline of the cutthroat population and made the native fish the priority species, and increase the harvest of lake trout,” Hansen said. “It was a hard decision to reduce the lake trout population at the time because of the commercial fishing on the lake.”

The fishing crew heads of to set gill nets in the lake. (B.L. Azure photo) The fishing crew heads of to set gill nets in the lake. (B.L. Azure photo)

In fact, the Mackinaw was introduced as a way to enhance commercial fishing. Another reason that makes it hard to control the fisheries on the lake is that the Tribes only own half the lake and anything they do to control non-native species won’t have the total effect they desire. Regardless the CSKT through its Natural Resources Department will continue the quest to save the bull trout and cut throat trout.

What has been done is the relaxing of the fishing regulations to all for revised bag limits and increase in the number of fishing poles a person can use. There is also a special Flathead Lake specific fishing license for anyone harvesting lake trout. And there is the Mack Days fishing event.

“The contest has been very successful in so many ways. The public’s reaction has been very good,” Hansen said. “We are now harvesting more than 50,000 (lake trout) fish a year. We are really happy with the growth we see.”

Growth is good in this case and hopefully the sale of whitefish and Mackinaw fillets will grow too.

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