SPOKANE, Wash. — In a cavernous and cold warehouse in Airway Heights a group of Spokane Tribe of Indians fish biologists encircled a large, vicious-looking fish.
On the folding plastic table lay a 45-inch-long, 27.5-pound northern pike. Spokane Tribal fishery biologists caught the fish in the Spokane arm of Lake Roosevelt during a weeklong gillnetting operation targeting the invasive species.
The pike is the largest any fish managers on the lake have caught.
But what’s truly alarming about the fish is not its size. Instead, it’s another sign that northern pike are making their way farther down the Columbia River system.
During that same weeklong gillnetting effort, the Colville Tribe, one of the three managers of Lake Roosevelt, caught a pike just 10 miles from Grand Coulee Dam.
“They eat literally everything,” Knudson said while her colleague, Jordyn Matherly, cut into the fish. “They will eat ducks, birds, fish.”
Alix Silver added, “I’ve seen a pike in a pike in a pike.”
The fish have razor-sharp teeth and ambush their prey. Unlike walleye — another nonnative predatory fish — northern pike eat large fish, such as adult salmon.
That’s one of the concerns about the species’ steady spread. Until this year northern pike had only been spotted as far downstream as Hunters, Washington. With the capture of a pike 10 miles from Grand Coulee, it means the fish are getting closer to salmon spawning habitat.
“They certainly have the potential to impact fisheries,” said Chuck Lee, a fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The real thing is if they get down around the Okanogan where we have sockeye returns. These fish are capable of consuming adult sockeyes.”
The invasion of northern pike originated from illegal introductions in Montana. The pike found their way down the Flathead River and into the Clark Fork. By the early 2000s, they were finding ideal habitat in the Box Canyon Reservoir reach of the Pend Oreille River.
Last week WDFW, the Spokane Tribe and the Colville Tribe combined for a join gillnetting effort throughout Lake Roosevelt. The goal of the operation was to develop an accurate northern pike survey method and to determine the effectiveness of suppression efforts, Lee said.
Although the data is still coming back, Lee said catch information from the 150 nets deployed doesn’t look good. Biologists caught pike in 70 percent of the nets they deployed across the lake.
“They’re spreading,” Lee said. “They’re pretty much everywhere.”
That isn’t to say there’s no way to stop them.
Starting in 2012, the Kalispel Tribe, working with WDFW, successfully suppressed northern pike in the Pend Oreille River.
Nick Bean, a biologist with the Kalispel Tribe, said most of the pike suppression work now is maintenance.
But Lake Roosevelt presents different challenges. The pure size of the lake is a barrier, and finding funding for the project has been a struggle for a cash-strapped WDFW.
“WDFW has been running in the red,” Lee said. “We need to put out about 10 times or more effort than what we’re currently putting out.”
WDFW spends between $60,000 to $80,000 a year on pike suppression. In May, Chris Donley, the WDFW’s Eastern Region fish program manager, estimated that to be effective WDFW would need to spend about $400,000.
The majority of funding comes from the Spokane Tribe and the Colville Tribe, as well as money provided by the Bonneville Power Administration and the Chelan Public Utilities District.
“They are doing what they can with what they have,” said Brent Nichols, the Spokane Tribe of Indians fisheries manager.
As for stopping, or at least significantly slowing the spread of pike, Nichols said more needs to be done.
“It’s going to take a lot more effort than we’re funded to do,” he said.
Pike suppression is a priority for the Colville and Spokane tribes, he said.
The Spokane Tribe spent about $400,000 in 2018 on pike suppression efforts in Roosevelt. In 2019 the base pike budget will fall to $285,000 with the expiration of one-time funding from BPA, Nichols said.
The Colville and Spokane tribes are taking the lead on suppression efforts while WDFW took the lead on last week’s survey. As of October, the tribes had removed 2,021 pike this year. The Colville Tribe’s angler reward program took 509 pike out of the system.
Since 2015, 8,051 pike have been removed from the lake, Nichols said.
“I think the biggest issue with Roosevelt is just that’s it is vast,” said Bill Baker a WDFW regional biologist. “I think we’re making progress on figuring out how to deal with that source population. But it’s a tough nut to crack.”
In the 1970s the fish were found in Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Upper Spokane River. By 2004, they’d made their way into the Pend Oreille River.
Although the Kalispel Tribe’s suppression efforts were mostly successful, some pike continued downstream and into British Columbia where the Pend Oreille flows into the Columbia.
In May, when The Spokesman-Review last wrote about northern pike, some anglers questioned how serious a problem the pike present to other species. One angler referenced reservoirs in South Dakota where northern pike coexist with other species.
Biologists from WDFW and the Spokane Tribe don’t believe coexistence is possible in the Columbia River system. Pike grow too fast and eat too much. Because they’re a non-native species, Washington fish have not evolved effective survival strategies.
What’s more, the topography of the system makes a big difference, Nichols said. Pike spawn and spend much of their time in shallower water. In a system where shallow, marshy water is separated from deeper water, it’s possible for pike to coexist with other fish.
That is not the case in Lake Roosevelt, Nichols said. Slack water from the dams created “some habitat” for pike, he said.
Northern pike in Alaska have devastated some salmon fisheries. During April’s Lake Roosevelt forum, biologists from Alaska warned area managers about the danger pike can present, especially to salmon.
“They can’t coexist in this habitat,” Nichols said.