Plan targets pike in the Kenai Peninsula

Posted: Tuesday, October 22, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Soldotna Creek drainage has yielded more than 250 pike since an experimental netting program began in May.

The project is part of a broader state and federal effort to size up the extent of the Kenai Peninsula's pike problem.

The predatory fish were planted by misguided anglers decades ago. Now they pose a threat to the region's prized sportfish like silver salmon and rainbow trout.

Pike have existed in Soldotna Creek and its adjoining lakes since the early 1970s and biologists worry that the voracious fish have polished off just about everything edible within this once plentiful system. Because Soldotna Creek empties into the Kenai River, pike might use the Kenai as a kind of transit to other feeding grounds.

There is evidence that a few already have, said Gary Sonnevil, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Over the summer, biologists found a pike carcass discarded by anglers fishing near the Russian River, he said. Pike have occasionally been reported in Moose River and Watson Lake. Stormy Lake in Nikiski is teeming with them.

Stormy Lake and Mackey Lakes are viewed as two major sources of trouble. Both lead directly to important salmon habitat. Fish can reach silver-rich Swanson River from Stormy Lake.

''To me, it's like a sore that's going to keep spreading,'' biologist Tim McKinley told the Anchorage Daily News last week.

He and fellow biologist Adam Reiner had just picked 14 healthy-looking pike only 1 1/2 hours after setting two 120-foot-long nets among the lily pads lining the shallow shore of this lake. They asked that the lake's name be withheld. It and surrounding waterways aren't open to the public, and landowners in this residential area already have trouble shooing away rod-toting trespassers craving a chance to hook a pike, whose meat, while bony, is compared with halibut in flavor and consistency.

They skulk in shallow, reedy, slow-moving lakes and streams, waiting to ambush passing fish, Sonnevil said. They hunt visually and so prefer clear water. Voracious pike will eat every other species living in a lake before eventually turning on their own young.

The shallow, weed-filled water where they thrive also is the habitat favored by juvenile silver salmon and rainbow trout, biologists say.

The fish are native to some streams on the west side of Cook Inlet and the Interior, where they have co-evolved with other species, Sonnevil said.

But where they aren't native, pike can be devastating. They were introduced to Bulchitna Lake, southeast of Skwentna along the Susitna River a couple decades ago. They have since traveled the river, darting into sloughs and lakes and dramatically reducing silver salmon and trout populations.

State and federal biologists have several ideas about studies and methods that might slow the spread of the invasive fish. They hold out no hope of eradicating pike entirely, saying it would likely involve costly, coordinated mass poisoning of infected lakes tied to a creek that flows into the Kenai River.

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