Neighbors in the Tote Road area have mixed feelings about the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s plan to eradicate northern pike from the lakes in their backyards.
The lakes near Tote Road, just south of Soldotna, are the last known stronghold of invasive northern pike on the Kenai Peninsula. Fish and Game has methodically poisoned and netted the rest from lakes in Nikiski, Sterling and Soldotna. The Tote Road lakes, which are isolated from anadromous waters, are the department’s next targets.
At a public meeting Monday at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, Fish and Game officials presented the plan to area residents and asked for the support as the department begins the permit application process.
“This is not a done deal,” said Rob Massengill, the project biologist who has overseen the pike eradication project on the Kenai Peninsula since 2006. “We’ve got a lot of permit hoops to jump through.”
There are eight known lakes with populations of pike, about 90 surface acres total. They’ve been there for decades, most likely introduced by illegal stocking, Massengill said. Pike are the top predators in the ponds and have nearly wiped out the other fish species in the lakes such as rainbow trout, leeches and sticklebacks. In other water bodies they’ve invaded in Southcentral Alaska, pike have also been known to eat birds, small mammals, frogs and virtually anything else they can swallow.
The main reason for Fish and Game to eradicate the pike in the Tote Road lakes is to cut off a source for fish to be taken and introduced to other water bodies, Massengill said.
“That’s really our big concern, for pike to get self-sustaining populations established in places like Beaver Creek, Swanson River, the Moose River, because they’re really productive salmon and trout fisheries,” Massengill said. “For Tote Road, it’s been kind of our lowest-priority lakes … because it’s basically a landlocked system, and we’re very aware of that. Our big concern is that it’s a source for pike.”
Fish and Game has used a specifically fish-targeting poison called rotenone to kill the pike more thoroughly than gillnetting from a boat can. They collect some of the remaining native fish from the lakes before poisoning them and then reintroduce the native fish once the poison has degraded and the pike are gone.
It was the use of rotenone that some of the neighbors were skeptical about. Several said they didn’t want Fish and Game to do a project at all if it involved using rotenone, as children and pets swim in the lakes during the summers and many had concerns about groundwater.
Massengill said Fish and Game uses the rotenone at low enough concentrations in the water that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actually considers it safe to drink, but they still recommend people stay away from the water until the poison dissipates in the spring after they apply it in the fall. Fish and Game takes water samples before and after rotenone is applied, and a well analysis they obtained from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources confirmed that the groundwater is separated from the lakes by a layer of clay and silt.
“Rotenone has never been detected anywhere in the U.S. that I’m aware of, in any of the literature I’ve read, where it must first pass through soil or lake sediment, which is the case for Tote Road,” Massengill said. “…Again, EPA says rotenone at 40 parts per billion is safe to drink, but it’s just nice to know that’s there.”
Other concerns included what would happen to the lakes afterward. Sportfish area manager Brian Marston explained that Fish and Game can either collect wild fish from the area and restock them after the poisoning is done or could restock the lakes with fish from the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery. Using hatchery fish wouldn’t be simple, though, he explained.
“I need to caution everybody that if we’re going to do that, there’s a lot of strings that are attached to using state-sponsored hatchery fish,” he said. “They’re not really strings. They’re actually ropes.”
Marston said Fish and Game prefers the wild fish option and would do it for three to five years after the poisoning is done. One of the reasons Fish and Game wants to reestablish fish populations in those lakes is to prevent future illegal stocking, said Division of Sportfish Region II Manager Tom Vania at the meeting.
“The reason why pike are in there is people want to fish,” he said. “…We know that if we take away a sportfishery from you and we don’t give you anything back, we might be right back in the same position. Somebody’s going to move fish again because they want a sportfishery, and we understand that.”
Using fish from the hatchery requires that Fish and Game list the lakes in its stocked lakes database, which is public, and requires that public access be afforded, Marston said. There’s limited public access now along some short easements, though many of the private landowners do sometimes allow anglers to cross their properties. John Stubblefield, who lives on Stubblefield Drive near Hope Lake, one of the pike lakes, said he allows people to cross his property but some have caused problems in the past, like leaving garbage or relieving themselves on the property.
He said he didn’t want to see public access developed, like a parking lot, and so preferred the lakes to go back to their natural state after the pike are eradicated.
“There was no fish in the lakes naturally, other than the sticklebacks and the freshwater shrimp and clams, and there used to be a lot of leeches,” he said. “All those fish that have been put in the lakes have been put in.”
Resident Terry Larson, who lives near Crystal Lake, which also has pike, said he support Fish and Game’s project and doesn’t have any concerns about the rotenone. He said he doesn’t support public access to the lakes and neither do many of his neighbors. Though the lakes are technically public, the land around them is private and most of the residents he knows don’t want anglers parking on the road and crossing their property to reach the lakes.
Other lakes have already undergone the treatment and shown promising revitalization. East Mackey Lake resident Rick Johnston said during the meeting that the second year after the pike were killed and the native fish restocked, the residents saw fish jumping “like tiddlywinks” and waterbirds frequently diving and catching the native fish from the lake. The neighbors there had concerns about the rotenone, too, he said, but none saw any negative effects.
“This last summer, you could sit out there and you couldn’t go five minutes without hearing 10 kerplunks from all the fish out there,” he said. “When they introduce fish into a new lake like that, there’s so much invertebrates … It’s just tremendous. It’s just ten times more productive, it seems.”
Larson said it’s helpful to hear what happened at West Mackey Lake and he was hopeful Fish and Game’s restoration efforts with the rainbow trout and stickleback would be successful.
“I would say after we heard there were pike in the lake, it was two years and you could tell. Especially in the evening, when it was calm, they were rising for bugs. Every spring, we used to have … frogs croaking like crazy. You don’t hear that anymore. You don’t even see them … I think (the pike eradication project) is a great thing and I want to see it happen.”