Below the surface

NEW TOWN -- Below the calm surface of the water floated three nets in Reunion Bay of Lake Sakakawea. This is just one bay of more than 60 nets in the greater Lake Sakakawea water system where Missouri River System Supervisor Dave Fryda and other ...

NEW TOWN -- Below the calm surface of the water floated three nets in Reunion Bay of Lake Sakakawea.

This is just one bay of more than 60 nets in the greater Lake Sakakawea water system where Missouri River System Supervisor Dave Fryda and other North Dakota Game and Fish Department employees pluck fish to count how many are surviving below.

Fryda said the fish in Lake Sakakawea are at an all-time low due to the low water levels.

In Reunion Bay, Fryda picks out fish and counts them with Missouri River biologist Russ Kinzler and fisheries seasonal worker Aaron Slominski to determine how bad it is.

"We usually see thousands, but it's hard to say if there is a lot less yet," Fryda said. "We've been seeing 60-80 from one end of the reservoir to the other, but things change from one day to the next. You have to look at the whole thing because one sample doesn't tell you a whole lot until you see more and compare and average the results."


The fall reproduction surveys are done every year and lets Fryda and others know how the fish spawned this spring.

"When fish are spawned in the spring and they have larvae it takes until fall when they are big enough to catch in the nets," Fryda said. "This is kind of an index on how everything did."

The cold water component is not included in fall reproduction surveys, which only look at warm water species.

"We're in about the seventh year of drought and the low water is really starting to show on the fish and fishery," Fryda said. "Early in the drought, things held out pretty well, but we see signs now with things like spring rainbow smelt spawning. Our larval surveys, which estimate the number of young smelt, were the lowest we've seen since we've began tracking it."

The smelt spawn appear to have been poor due to low lake elevations, he added.

"We just don't have the good substrate, even though we have stable water, it's just still too low," Fryda said. "The substrate is mostly mud and muck, where as higher up on the banks we have better substrate."

Substrate is a surface on which organisms grow or are attached.

The adult fish survey when fish are weighed was done in July and things didn't look good.


"All fish are at record low relative weights," Fryda said. "You could compare (fish weight) to human body fat index. It's how heavy they are for their length and is an indicator of forage and good health with fish growth."

Sauger and northern pike have really declined, especially with last year's conditions, he added.

"Last year was kind of a big turning point," Fryda said. "The last good smelt spawn was in 2002. Smelt very seldom live longer than four years in Lake Sakakawea, so 2006 was a big year where a lot of that last, big, strong reproductive effort dropped out of the population."

Another survey done on fish in the lake and reservoir is called the hydro acoustics, which estimate cold water foliage for smelt and Cisco, he added.

"Cisco fish look like they may have increased a little bit, while smelt haven't improved much since 2006," Fryda said. "The other issue has been access. Since early 2000, our development guys have spent more than $5 million to keep ramps active and had to relocate a lot of them with these temporary ones. You can chase the water if you have the money to do it."

You can get the ramps in, but it costs a lot of money, he added.

"The ultimate affect on the fishery is pretty tough to mitigate with low water levels," Fryda said.

For Fryda the solution is simple to identify, but not simple to achieve.


"We need water plain and simple," he said. "Most of the bays have largely dried up. Where we do have decent substrates at some of these points, it's a pretty poor place for fish to spawn, especially in early spring when we have a lot of wind."

Smelt spawn in 6 inches or less of water and the wind-swept points aren't conducive to good egg survival, he added.

"You get a windy day it just destroys everything," Fryda added. "Protected bays are ideal where you have good substrate back in there from the wind blowing and no waves crashing in then."

Also having decent water quality with cold water habitat is critical from August into September for smelt, Cisco and ultimately salmon, walleye and pike, he said.

"The amount of cold water habitat is really compromised, plus our oxygen levels in the mid to upper portions of the reservoir are really becoming compromised in coldwater habitat at low levels," Fryda said.

The fisheries and other departments have looked at different options, but there doesn't seem to be many at this point without a habitat base, he added.

"The number one thing for fish and wildlife management is a suitable habitat and unfortunately our habitat quality, not just quantity, has really suffered," Fryda said. "You look at a 340,000-acre reservoir and you are down roughly 100,000 acres. You see that we have half the amount of habitat or water volume we should and bottom line it is the worst half."

The upper half is the good stuff, he added.


"This is the lowest we've been since it was first filled," Fryda said. "It's washed down and what is exposed now is silt and muck which has accumulated in the backs of these bays and affects the overall productivity. The reservoir is aging and as a reservoir ages it becomes less productive."

A substantial rise to get water back is needed, he added.

"Aside from the substrate and all this vegetation that has grown on the shoreline, we need water," Fryda said. "When we flood that vegetation it really drives our productivity and provides good spawning habitat for pike, perch and other things. Then the walleyes come out. It drives our productivity from plankton on up."

Vegetation breaks down and provides the nutrients which are desperately needed now, he added.

Aside from the lack of reproduction, smelt and all that basic productivity of the system has been severely compromised at the levels Fryda described.

"Even if the fish did reproduce, the ability of the system to support them just isn't what it is at higher levels," he said. "The food base isn't out there from the bottom up."

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