The June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program is a multi-agency cooperative effort designed to coordinate and implement recovery actions for the June sucker. The program also recognizes the need for continued operation of existing water projects and development to meet future water needs. As such, the program works to balance and accommodate water resource needs of the human population with June sucker recovery efforts. The program takes an adaptive management approach wherein biological information is gathered, reviewed and incorporated into the program on a continual basis. While the priority is on June sucker, the program also provides a mechanism to promote the recovery of other federally listed species, and prevent the need for further listings in the Utah Lake Drainage Basin.
The June Sucker Implementation Program has two main goals:
In 2002 a coalition of state, federal, and local outdoor and environmental interest groups joined forces to recover the June sucker. Each of these groups have agreed to dedicate resources, such as, funding, personnel and in-kind services in a coordinated effort to recover June sucker. The June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program is made up of the following organizations:
The June sucker is a unique species of fish that only occurs naturally in Utah Lake. It is one of four species in a group of fish known as “lake suckers” that make up the genus Chasmistes, these species differ from other species of suckers primarily from their feeding behavior which involves filtering invertebrates out of the water column instead of feeding on the bottom of a lake. The June sucker has played a role in the history of Utah, as it was a major food source for native people and sustained those who settled Utah Valley.
The June sucker was federally listed as an endangered species in April 1986. Factors contributing to its endangered status included impacts to its natural habitat, water development, and predation or competition with nonnative fish. The primary reasons for listing were its localized distribution, failure to recruit new adult fish to the population, and the threats to its continued survival.
In the 1800’s, the June sucker population is estimated to have numbered in the millions. Those numbers declined to the point of requiring listing as an endangered species in the mid 1980’s. Following listing in 1986, the number of June sucker in Utah Lake continued to decline, although efforts were made to implement captive breeding programs. By the late 1990’s the wild population of June sucker was estimated to be less than 1,000 adults. Due to efforts by the June Sucker Recovery Implementation Program, that decline has been reversed and the population has started to rebound. We now have tens of thousands of June sucker living in Utah Lake and spawning in its tributaries.
The life cycle of the June sucker begins in the streams that flow into Utah Lake, primarily the Provo River, which is the main spawning location for the species. Each spring in May and June, depending on conditions, adult June sucker swim upstream from Utah Lake to spawn. Adult fish typically range from 17 to 24 inches in total length with an average weight of about five pounds. June sucker spawn in water about one to three feet deep with velocities between 0.2 to 3.2 feet per second over gravel substrate. Adult June sucker return to Utah Lake soon after spawning.
June sucker eggs hatch in about a week depending on the temperature of the water. After hatching, the larval June sucker emerge from the gravel and drift downstream towards Utah Lake. As the larval fish drift downstream they are vulnerable to predation and dependent on river flows to transport them to good rearing habitat. Currently, that good rearing habitat is lacking in Utah Lake and virtually all the larval June sucker are consumed or die in the first few weeks of their lives, as a result there is little to no natural recruitment of new adults to the June sucker population. This “recruitment bottleneck” is one of the primary reasons June sucker are still listed as endangered.
Little is known about the early years of a June sucker's life because researchers have been unable to capture young fish older than about 30 days in the Utah Lake system. It is believed that drifting larvae are either consumed by nonnative predacious fish in the Provo River before they reach Utah Lake, or starve to death because habitat has been altered to where it no longer provides food and temperature conditions suitable for their survival.
Hatchery fish introduced into Utah Lake at sizes large enough to avoid predation have survived and entered the Provo River spawning run. The ability of hatchery fish stocked as juveniles to survive, grow and reach sexual maturity in the Utah Lake system adds to the evidence that the recruitment bottleneck for June sucker is in the early life stages. Efforts to recover June sucker, therefore, are intended to target improving conditions for early life stages. June sucker reach reproductive maturity at age 5 or 6 and live to be approximately 40 years old.
Hatchery fish introduced into Utah Lake at sizes large enough to avoid predation have survived and can be found participating in annual spawning runs. The ability of hatchery fish stocked as juveniles to survive, grow and reach sexual maturity in the Utah Lake system adds to the evidence that the recruitment bottleneck for June sucker is in the early life stages. Efforts to recover June sucker, therefore, are intended to target improving conditions for early life stages. June sucker reach reproductive maturity at age five or six and live to be approximately 40 years old. The stocking of these captive reared fish has bolstered the June sucker population and prevented the species from going extinct.
Utah Lake spans 24 miles in length and 13 miles in width. For generations the lake has been a gathering place, a treasured source of food and resources, and millions of plants and animals have made their home on, near or in Utah Lake.
Utah Lake literally fostered the growth of civilization in Utah. However, since humans first discovered the riches of Utah Lake, the lake has changed. The lake, its native fish population and its ecosystem are in harm’s way. Today, Utah Lake’s water is classified as impaired for total dissolved solids and has high levels of phosphorus. The lake’s ecosystem, which supported so many species of fish long ago, is now overrun with carp, and is barely able to provide to its two remaining native fish species, the June sucker and the Utah sucker. For all the demands we place on this gift of nature, it deserves all the respect and care we can give it in return.
When the state of Utah was still in its infancy there were millions of fish in Utah Lake. In fact, eating fish was the only way many people survived. Settlers and Ute Indians fished every available body of water, including the Provo, American Fork, Jordan and Spanish Fork rivers and Utah Lake. But the locals weren't the only ones to cast their nets and lines. Word spread about the lake's generous offering of fish, and fishermen from neighboring valleys descended upon the area. There are stories of being able to pluck tasty trout or sucker out of the water with bare hands, or catch all they wanted by simply dragging unbaited hooks through the water.
There were thirteen native fish species that originally inhabited Utah Lake. Only the June sucker and the Utah sucker are still present. One species, the Utah Lake sculpin is considered extinct with the last specimen collected in 1928. The Bonneville cutthroat trout are primarily restricted to headwater streams. The least chub, native only to Utah and once abundant along the Wasatch Front, persists only in a small population in north Juab Valley and a few areas of the West Desert. The Bonneville redside shiner, mottled sculpin, leatherside chub, Utah chub, speckled dace, longnose dace, mountain whitefish and mountain sucker are no longer in the lake, but still exist in tributaries. All other species of fish present in Utah Lake were introduced intentionally as a food source or for recreational angling and compete with or prey upon the native fish.
In the past 100 years, 24 species have been mixed with the native fish of Utah Lake. These new species include the common carp, largemouth bass, black bullhead, channel catfish, walleye, white bass and others.
In the 1880s carp were introduced to Utah Lake to replace the dwindling number of native fish including Bonneville cutthroat trout and to provide locals with a hardy fish that was a popular food in other areas of the world. The carp had long-lasting, negative impacts on the lake and its native fish community because they destroyed cover that provided protection for small fish from their predators. The carp's aggressive foraging habits eventually destroyed the pondweed on the surface and the plant life on the lake floor. This directly impacted the native fish population. Carp also reproduce and grow faster than June sucker. Because June sucker grow slower, they remain vulnerable to predators longer. Carp currently comprise more than 90 percent of the biomass (weight) of fish in the lake.