Once Thought Extinct, the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout Are Back

The beautiful, and resurgent, Lahotan Cutthroat Trout

The beautiful, and resurgent, Lahotan Cutthroat Trout

We love happy endings. A once-plentiful western sport fish has been brought back from near-extinction (no, it’s not a zombie, although with a name like the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout it sounds like it could be). The name is derived not from its behavior but from the distinctive red slash that marks its lower jaw. This largest of all American trout has made a big comeback, weighing in at 20+ pounds. Popular with anglers and diners alike (it was Mark Twain’s favorite) this member of the salmon family has been revived by a cooperative effort between the Federal Government and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

A native species of the Truckee River and Lake Tahoe, the Cutthroat was doomed in the mid-20th century when the Truckee was dammed (and polluted) and the fish was deprived of its spawning grounds. Lake Tahoe, meanwhile, was stocked with a non-native lake trout, which preyed on young cutthroats. By the 1940s, cutthroats were declared extinct.

Fast forward to the 1970s, when the Paiute tribe established a hatchery and stocked Pyramid Lake with trout from nearby lakes as a way of keeping the sport fishing industry alive as a source of revenue for the tribe. The trout they propagated  were smaller than the original cutthroats, but because Pyramid Lake is too salty for the lake trout the predators of Lake Tahoe weren’t an issue.

Pyramid Lake, NV

Pyramid Lake, NV

A few years later a biologist identified a species in Pilot Lake in Northern Nevada that he thought might be the original cutthroat. Recent tests show a DNA match between the Pilot and Pyramid trout. As a final test, biologists brought Pilot Lake eggs down to the Pyramid hatchery to see if they would thrive in their original environment. Boy did they ever – the fish once thought extinct are bigger and better than ever. The farmed cutthroats are growing much faster than other trout species, and the 20-pounders being caught now indicate that there are bigger fish to fry down the road.  These specimens, which are growing five times faster than other trout species, are less than half way through their expected life span

This whole process is one of those all-too-rare efforts at species protection in which everyone wins: thanks to biologists and the tribe’s hatchery, the species is revived, the native american tribe has a thriving economy, and anglers have a chance to go after really big fish.

Do you live in Nevada? May 11 is Free fishing day at Pyramid Lake!

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May 7, 2013 | Posted by in Ecology, Fish, Lahotan Cutthroat Trout, Uncategorized | Comments Off