A new Alaska Department of Fish and Game netting project designed to control northern pike on the Kenai Peninsula already has resulted in the death of more than 500 of the unwanted fish.
The department held a meeting on the netting project Friday at the Mackey Lakes firehouse. There, representatives from both Fish and Game and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge discussed how the department is trying to find a way to reduce the threat pike present to the area's native fish populations.
"Pike present a clear and imminent danger to the salmon and trout resources of the Kenai Peninsula," said Fish and Game area manager Mark Gamblin.
Pike have been known to exist on the peninsula for at least 30 years. It's believed they were introduced into the Mackey lakes system by humans hoping to fish for the notoriously feisty fish. But pike also are voracious eaters, and Gamblin said once introduced, the pike basically eat everything they can get their mouths on.
That's what happened in the Mackey lakes, Gamblin said. And they're on the move.
It's believed pike now inhabit at least 14 peninsula lakes, as well as the Moose River. Gamblin said he's worried that if the pike are allowed to continue expanding their range, more areas could end up like the Mackey lakes, where pike are the only fish around.
"We don't have the trout population in some of the lakes around here because of the pike," Gamblin said.
He said biologist Tim McKinley started the netting project as a way to try and find some solution to the problem of invasive pike in area drainages. McKinley targeted pike populations in East Mackey, West Mackey and Stormy lakes, using two types of netting. In the Mackey lakes, gillnets were used, while a hoop net was used in Stormy.
So far, the project has resulted in the capture and killing of more than 500 Mackey lakes fish, as well as around 40 from Stormy Lake. The nets were removed from the lakes earlier this summer, but are scheduled to go back in soon. The department wants to continue the project next year and possibly expand it to other lakes in the future.
Though most everyone agrees pike are unwanted guests on the peninsula, some area residents are concerned the project will end up netting some unintended species.
Walt and Candace Ward live on East Mackey Lake. They say they're worried waterfowl such as loons, ducks and swans could be in danger with the nets out.
"The loons of Southcentral Alaska are a declining species right now," Walt Ward said following Friday's meeting. "That's a concern to a lot of people."
Ward said East Mackey currently supports a breeding pair of loons, as well as a juvenile loon. He said he's worried that if just one accident occurs with the loons getting ensnared in the nets, it could mean the lake would no longer have a loon presence.
"If they catch either one of the adults, that's the end of the nesting pair," he said.
Gamblin admitted the nets possibly could endanger loons and other wildlife. In fact, he said the nets have killed three or four ducks, as well as entangled three loons which were released alive. But he said the real issue is protecting the peninsula's resident salmon and trout populations. He said the department is willing to listen to suggestions on how to control pike, and that they're certainly concerned for local wildlife.
"We want to do what we can responsibly to manage the threat pike are to salmon and trout resources, as well as minimize the risk to other species," he said.
He said McKinley has moved his nets to try and find less bird-friendly areas on the lakes, as well as increase the time employees watch the nets.
"We have absolutely no desire to injure or kill ducks, geese, loons, grebes or any nontarget species," he said.
Ward said he'd like to see the department do more to ensure resident loons are not killed, such as waiting until later in the year to resume netting. Currently, the department plans to resume netting Sept. 2. Ward said he'd like them to wait until the loons have migrated, something he said likely will happen during the middle of next month.
"I believe we need to honor that natural timing. That chick needs to successfully migrate," he said.
Gamblin said nothing is off the table at this point, including installing barriers to fish passage between lakes, using chemical agents to poison fish and changing times when nets are set. For now, though, all the department wants to see is fewer pike in the lakes, and he said the netting project is one way to do that.
"There are no final solutions right now," he said.
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