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Drought could impact stocked fish: DWR raises limits to prevent die-offs

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How is the drought affecting anglers in Utah this summer? In one sense, it’s giving them a bonus: the Division of Wildlife Resources announced on July 1 that it’s raising fishing limits in some water bodies to reduce potential fish die-off due to anticipated low water levels caused by drought.

“Smaller amounts of water heat up more quickly and warm to higher temperatures, which is problematic for fish because warm water holds less oxygen than colder water,” explains the July 1 DWR press release. “The combination of high temperatures and low oxygen can stress fish, causing poor growth and disease, and can sometimes be fatal to fish.”

In all 57 “community fishing ponds” in Utah, anglers are allowed to catch two extra trout until August 31. Limits are also raised at specific reservoirs in Tooele, Garfield, and Beaver counties. A similar emergency fishing limit change was made earlier this year in May, affecting 10 water bodies.

The change does not affect lakes near Moab, such as Ken’s Lake. DWR Conservation Outreach Manager Aaron Bott explained that in southern Utah, planners are keenly aware of the possibility of drought and adjust their stocking events accordingly.

“We knew that a drought was underway as early as this late winter,” said Bott. “We took proactive measures to reduce our rainbow Trout planting by 50%.”

The DWR stocked Ken’s Lake in March with 3,500 rainbow trout and again in April with 500 more, driving the fish to the lake in a water truck and dumping them in. In a non-drought year, the agency might have planted twice that number.

“Typically we plant fish in the spring, hold off in the summer because water gets warm, then plant again in the fall,” Bott said. “We’re not going to be planting nearly as many fish this upcoming fall because we’re already expecting there to be significantly lower water in Ken’s Lake.”

Too many fish competing for resources in too little water could result in mass die-offs, which Bott described as “extremely wasteful and tragic.”

“That’s why we encourage people to get out there and harvest,” he said.

While the DWR can make predictions about drought conditions, it can’t predict an event like the Pack Creek Fire, during which helicopters dipped out of Ken’s Lake to fight the flames. The fire management team asked the DWR, as well as the Bureau of Land Management and the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency, for permission to use the lake, and all agencies gave their assent.

Bott said it’s unlikely that any fish would have been scooped up in the helicopter buckets, because they would likely have been hiding at the bottom of the lake from the noise and disturbance. Those dips did reduce the level of the lake, however—until increased diversion from Mill Creek raised the lake levels but dropped south fork Mill Creek levels to almost nothing. [See “Mill Creek runs dry,” June 30 edition. -ed.] Locals noticed the change and contacted the BLM and the flow in Mill Creek was restored, but before that happened, locals said they saw many dead fish in the dried-up creek bed.

“We did investigate,” Bott said of the incident, “but it was several days after the event and water flows had increased back to what we would perceive as normal at this time, and we didn’t find anything… but if there were substantial die-offs they would have been washed away by that point.” He did note that in that part of Mill Creek, the only fish are non-native brown trout stocked by the DWR.

Though many water bodies are expected to be unusually low this summer, the DWR maintains reports on current conditions at fishing locations and offers lists of water bodies likely to offer quality fishing opportunities throughout the season. In southeast Utah, those include Recapture and Blanding reservoirs in San Juan County, Millsite State Park in Emery County, and Scofield State Park in Carbon County. For more information visit wildlife.utah.gov/fishing.