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June sucker recovery programs helping endangered fish survive

Published: Saturday, May 31 2014 3:18 p.m. MDT

Utah Department of Natural Resources Native Aquatics Project leader Chris Crockett tries to take photos of June suckers, the endangered fish found only in Utah Lake, as the fish make their way up the Provo River for their annual June spawning run near Utah Lake State Park in Provo on Thursday, May 29, 2014.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

PROVO — The June sucker is a fish native to Utah Lake and the Provo River.

Efforts over the past decade to help the endangered fish survive appear to be paying off.

The June sucker was put on the Endangered Species List in 1986, and the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program has brought together numerous interests to help provide a better habitat for the fish. They are reducing carp in the lake and increasing the water flow as the fish spawn in the Provo River.

“This is exciting," said Michael Mills, June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program coordinator. "Ten years ago we would see a handful a fish in a day, and if we saw three or four we were pretty excited. And today you can walk along the trail and see 30, 40, maybe even 60 fish.”

Adult June suckers leave Utah Lake in June and head to the Provo River to spawn. The eggs sink to the bottom of the river and hatch a few days later. A key part of helping them once again thrive depends on the Provo River.

“Probably 80 percent of the water you see here right now is from the June Sucker Recovery Program to support the spawning activity,” Mills said.

Despite the spawning success, few of the fish that hatch will actually survive.

”Even though we have good spawning habitat and have fish here spawning today, the likelihood is that next to zero of the larval fish will actually make it to adulthood, and that is the big problem right now with June sucker, is getting these fish to survive on their own,” Mills said.

The problem is the habitat in the lake does not give the June sucker enough protection from predators.

“We feel if we get a handle on the carp population, we will see vegetation come back out on the lake, and that’s an area the fish can go to hide from predators,” Mills said.

Transplanting mature fish from a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources hatchery is also critical to the June sucker's recovery.

"We're seeing the fruits of our efforts from our hatchery,” said Chris Crockett, a native aquatic biologist with the DWR. “They have done a great job being able to produce a healthy fish, as well as our partners that have done a great job with habitat restoration and protecting water within the Provo River.”

For biologists, it's about restoring the natural ecosystem of Utah Lake.

“Everything we do for June sucker, especially when we are talking a Provo River Delta, that is not only going to benefit these fish, but that is going to benefit fishermen. If we can remove carp, all of that biomass will revert back to more desirable species,” Crockett said.

It's an ongoing effort that will still take years to help the June sucker once again become independent in Utah Lake, but progress is being made.

The June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program and the Utah Lake Commission are holding a Utah Lake Festival from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, June 7, at Utah Lake State Park. The festival is a chance for the public to experience Utah Lake.

Email: spenrod@deseretnews.com

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