Add muskellunge to the list of south-coastal Alaska’s modern-era, climate-change invaders.
First it was northern pike, then largemouth bass, and now the Monsters of the Midwest.
Historically, the largest of the pike – a fish that can grow to the size of king salmon – have never been found north of central Ontario or west of the Rocky Mountains.
And yet what is believed to be a reproducing population showed up in a Kenai Peninsula lake last fall, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Give Alaska the records for westernmost and northernmost musky.
“Numerous muskies of varying ages were found…which is a terrifying thought,” Dave Rutz, the director of the state Division of Sport Fisheries said in a Tuesday statement.
Rutz at one time directed a state program that hoped to eradicate northern pike, a cousin of the musky, from the wild, 20,000-square-mile Susitna River drainage just west of the state’s largest city. The task proved impossible, and the state is now engaged in a costly pike control project that could go on indefinitely.
Pike basically killed the remote community of Alexander Creek, only about 25 miles northwest of Anchorage. It once supported busy fishing lodges and bustled with anglers chasing Chinook (king) salmon in late May and June and coho salmon (silvers) in July and August.
The U.S. Census listed the resident population as 40 in 1990. There are now so few residents the census stopped counting Alexander Creek as a census-designated place.
“Alexander Creek once supported a multimillion-dollar sport fish industry with 10, full-time lodges, along with numerous guides, air and boat charter services, and boat rentals – all which are no longer in operation since the king salmon fisheries plummeted,” Rutz wrote in a 2016 story for the Alaska Fish & Wildlife News.
As pike over the years expanded their range from Alexander Lake into the slow-moving creek, he said, “king salmon numbers dwindled from a high of 6,300 in 1989 to a low of less than 150 in 2008; silver and red (sockeye) salmon numbers displayed similar trends.
“Chinook salmon once spawned throughout the entire mainstem of Alexander Creek including upstream of Alexander Lake. Since pike encroachment, nearly all the salmon spawning is confined to a fast clear-water tributary of the creek known as Sucker Creek.”
From Alexander Lake in all directions, pike have become a concern for fisheries biologists who’ve watched them make their way out of Bulchitna Lake, where they are first believed to have been introduced, into Lake Creek and from there into the Yentna River and from the Yentna into the Susitna River and from there into many of the shallow, slow-moving, vegetation-filled waters in the vast Susitna drainage.
“Northern pike are a very hearty species of fish; tolerating fairly saline environments and thrive in waters with low oxygen levels,” Rutz noted.
The good news for salmon lovers is that pike don’t do well in fast-flowing, rocky streams such as the Kenai’s Russian River.
“The Kenai Peninsula’s glacial rivers and deep sockeye rearing lakes would likely not support large pike populations because suitable pike habitat is sparse,” observed state fishery biologist Rob Massengill. “Similarly, the world’s largest sockeye fishery in Bristol Bay coexists with native pike because pike habitat is very limited in their rearing areas.”
Pike, let alone muskies, are not native to the Kenai or the Susitna River basin, but Massengill noted the abundance of great pike habitat in the region.
“Southcentral Alaska has a lot of shallow vegetated waterbodies that for millennia were nurseries for juvenile salmonids as these fish evolved in the absence of pike,” he wrote.
“Looking at fish survey data from Interior Alaska where native pike are widespread, it is striking how few juvenile salmonids actually coexist with pike in the countless shallow and weedy floodplain lakes common to that region despite connectivity to anadromous rivers.”
That muskies, which can grow to almost 67 pounds and thus need to eat much to sustain themselves, had apparently become established on the Kenai spooked state fishery biologists.
Thankfully, the fish were found while the state was doing a pike eradication project on an unnamed Kenai lake, Fish and Game’s Rick Green said Tuesday, and the agency is pretty confident it has wiped out the northernmost, westernmost musky population in North America.
But Rutz sounded more than a little unhappy about the incident in that statement:
“The muskies that were found on the Kenai Peninsula got to Alaska by only one means: intentional human actions. The nearest native population of muskies is in Manitoba Canada, making it virtually impossible that they could get to Alaska through natural migration.
“Selfish actions by those who intentionally bring potential invasive species into our state for their own benefit continue to put our world-class salmon fisheries at risk.
“Over the last several years, ADF&G has put millions of dollars towards the elimination of invasive species, most notably, northern pike on the Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage and in the Mat-Su, all because of the ‘Johnny Appleseed’s’ or ‘bucket biologists’ who intentionally, and illegally, move live fish species to parts of Alaska where they don’t belong.”
How to deter such activity is the subject of discussion in state fisheries management agencies across the country given that many species of fish can be easily bought online. Rutz suggested technology might help in at least catching some of the perpetrators going forward.
“Non-native species introductions are taken very seriously and are
actively investigated with genetics and other technologies, similar to forensic analyses used for other crimes,” he said.
It is conceivable that an illegally stocked fish could be traced back to a dealer and from there connected to a purchaser in Alaska. It is illegal to transplant fish without a permit in the state and people caught doing so are liable to a year in jail and fines of up to $10,000.
“At the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, we firmly believe that lawful anglers do not intend to introduce invasive species into our waters,” Rutz said. “However, we must act aggressively to prevent these occurrences. Preventing invasive species problems before they occur is, by far, the most cost-effective option.
“Your help is needed! Please report any suspected invasive species immediately. Reporting can be done by several means. You can report on the department website or by calling the Invasive Species Hotline: 1-877-INVASIV (1-877-468-2748), or by calling your local Fish and Game office.”
That said, there is no need to report the goldfish now living in the manmade lake at Cuddy Family Midtown Park in Anchorage. The fish dumped there by people hoping to save them are sure to die.
They do, however, represent Alaska’s connection to a global problem in a largely urban world where some hate to see anything die – let alone participate in mercy killing.
And in some places with warmer waters the goldfish actually survive.
“A monstrously huge goldfish was recently captured in the Niagara River in New York,” LiveScience reported on June 21. “The goldfish was presumably a discarded house pet that may have been illegally released or survived a traumatic flush down a toilet.
“An even more supersized goldfish was nabbed in California’s Lake Tahoe in 2013; it weighed in at just over 4 pounds and measured nearly 2 feet long.
Maybe Alaska should be thankful it still has winters cold enough to kill off some of the more common of invasive species.