The Great NANFA Loach Hunt
In early June I received a phone call from Tulalip Salmon Hatchery manager Cliff Bengston. The hatchery is located on the Tulalip Indian Reservation near Marysville, Washington, about 30 miles north of Seattle. Cliff had an odd-looking fish that came from a pond on Tulalip Creek. He said it looked like a gunnel with barbels. It was obviously not a native fish and I suggested that it might be a loach or weatherfish. I was glad when he said "I think someone should be told about this. Do you want to take care of it for me?" He gave me the fish and sure enough, it was a loach of some kind. I told him that reproducing populations of loaches have been found in several states, including Oregon and Idaho. They've been found in areas of still water with mud substrate in Oregon. He added that the fish was found in a silt-filled settling pond used to filter the hatchery's intake water supply.Established populations of the Oriental weatherfish Misgurnus anguillicaudatus have been found as near as Portland, Oregon. NANFA member Dan Logan had found the fish near Portland in 1985, and recently wrote a paper on it and other aquarium-released exotics in Oregon (Logan et al., 1996). Also, a single specimen of the Chinese fine-scaled loach Misgurnus mizoepis was found in the Snake River drainage in eastern Oregon in 1977. Subsequent searches for additional specimens of that fish didn't turn up any fish. The Snake River discovery was the only documented find of Misgurnus mizoepis anywhere in North America.
According to the book Nonindigenous Fishes Introduced into Inland Waters of the United States (Fuller et al., 1999), neither loach has ever been found in Washington. However, I spoke to Dr. Fuller and she mentioned hearing of a population of loaches being found in Lake Washington near Seattle a couple years ago. She added she didn't have any details, and that the collection had been made by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists. Dr. Fuller contacted NANFA member Kevin Aitkin of the USFWS in Olympia, WA. He confirmed that the other collections had occurred approximately three years ago, and added that additional populations of a loach, probably Misgurnus anguillicaudatus, were discovered in Lake Washington this summer by Muckleshoot Tribe biologists performing electrofishing surveys in a shallow, vegetated portion of the lake. Nearly 60 fish have been found so far this summer.
I believe the Tulalip Creek loach is one of these two loaches, and most likely M. anguillicaudatus. Photos I've seen on the Internet and in aquarium fish books have been rather unhelpful in identifying this fish, but it does appear to be of the genus Misgurnus. I donated the fish to the University of Washington fish collection. Someone there will identify the fish. However, the systematics and taxonomy for the weatherfish are in need of clarification. The previous Oregon specimens of M. mizolepis and M. anguillicaudatus were sent to taxonomist M. Cottelet in Switzerland, and it may take similar efforts to learn the identity of the Tulalip Creek loach.
Before I sent it to the University of Washington, Jan Gleckler of the Tribal Fish Health Center in Olympia tested the fish for viral pathogens, and found none. When she opened the fish she found it had eggs.
I asked Cliff if he'd like to find out if there was a population of the fish in the creek, and I offered the help of NANFA members to conduct such a search. He said he'd be grateful for any help. There is a concern that weatherfish could be predators on native fishes or parasite and disease vectors. So, the call went out for a NANFA loach search!
Saturday June 26 arrived quickly. Five people from Portland drove up that morning and stopped by my place in Olympia. They were Norm Edelen, Lisa Hayashi, Rachel Lusby, and Layn and Amy Leudtke (They're also all from the Greater Portland Aquarium Society). We drove 1-1/2 hours north and met up with Sam Beavin (from the Greater Seattle Aquarium Society), Jeff Kruse, Richard Bell, and Brian Bell, a few miles from the hatchery. We formed a caravan to the Tulalip salmon hatchery, where we were met by Jesse Rude, the loach discoverer, who took us to the collection site.
Up to this point I had high hopes that we'd have a successful search (success being measured by our being able to state with some certainty that additional fish were or were not present). Previously I had tried to think of all the ways we could locate the fish, so we had shovels, rakes, dip nets, a seine, and Jeff even brought a wetsuit. The second I saw the site my heart sunk, and I tried thinking of other things we could do besides look for loaches. I recalled that on the drive up Layn had been telling me that he wanted some sticklebacks, so I pointed out that we could probably find some sticklebacks in the vegetation along the banks. You see, the site was a pond that there was no way we could sample thoroughly-- 200 by 90 feet in size, 6-8 feet deep in the middle, with steep sides and 3 feet of silt and organic muck on the bottom. Ugh!
From left to right: Sam Beavin, me, Amy Leudtke, and Jesse, the loach discoverer, just after reaching the pond. I'm shaking my head and wondering if these nice folks would ever forgive me for wasting their day. We're standing on top of the pond's exit. The metal screens there are where the original loach was collected. It had swum downstream as the pond was being drained and became pinned to the screens. The pond gets drained every couple years. I think that's the time to be there to look for loaches-- to visually sample the sediments for wriggling loaches.
Still, we did the best we could, and the day turned out to be great fun! The bottom was like quicksand and hard to walk on unless we were close to the bank. So Jeff donned his wetsuit and mask and proceeded to scoop up netfuls of muck from various places in the pond, which he poured on the bank for other people to check for fish. Others worked along the bank in the shallow water with dipnets scooping along the bottom and through vegetation.
We spent about 3 hours there. The weather was perfect and we enjoyed discovering the underwater life of the pond. No loaches were found, but we found many threespine stickleback, some juvenile cutthroat trout, a few crayfish, and many insect larvae, mostly dragonflies. The odor and gases rising all around us from the decaying sediments we stirred up made for more than one joke.
Afterwards we drove to the home of Jeff and Katrina Kruse, where we were treated to a fantastic dinner of fresh salmon and a salad and squash picked from the garden. We then talked Katrina into treating us to a slide show of her spectacular photographs of Puget Sound fishes and invertebrates. Katrina is a scuba diver and her photos are all taken in the wild. She recently decided to make her photos commercially available.
After dinner and after the slide show, the evening's final entertainment was the Kruse's dog Wally, an English mastiff with some humorous quirks-- he loves strawberries and eats them off the plants in the garden. He also likes foam rubber, and he tears it into little pieces and fills his huge mouth, then spits them out with one great exhale.
I thank everyone for their company and enthusiasm and look forward to the next time we get together!
(2) Fuller, P. L., L.G. Nico, and J.D. Williams. 1999. Nonindigenous Fishes Introduced into Inland Waters of the United States. U.S.G.S. Biological Resources Division, Gainsville, Florida. American Fisheries Society Special Publication 27.
My slightly humorous account of the loach hunt and associated events should not detract from the seriousness of the topic. Introductions of exotic plants and animals have harmed natural ecosystems worldwide. NANFA members need to educate people to Never Release Aquarium Fishes! The loach discovery has been reported to the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species (NAS) information resource for the United States Geological Survey. This is a valuable organization with an excellent web page containing up-to-date accounts of exotic plants and animals by species, major drainage basin, and state.