BLUE BAY — Conservation isn’t cheap.
Under a cloudless sky on waters as smooth as glass, a crew of four men clad in bright orange rain gear splattered with fish scales and slime was doing its part last week to pay for the tab of conserving native trout in the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.
Working wordlessly as the morning’s sun added its first touch of warmth, in the kind of unison that comes after hours spent working side-by-side, the men plucked hundreds of lake trout and whitefish from a two-mile long gill net. The net had been carefully stretched the night before in the shallow waters southeast of Flathead Lake’s Bird Island.
The blue bins on the boat’s deck quickly filled with fish that would be transported back to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ facilities at Blue Bay. There, a small team gathered to fillet and package the fish that would become both a gift to local food banks and revenue in a new venture that seeks to offset some of the costs to bringing back native cutthroats and bull trout to Flathead Lake.
Last spring, the Tribal Council approved the incorporation of the nonprofit, tribally owned Native Fish Keepers Inc. business that has begun selling some of the lake trout and whitefish caught in both netting operations and during the spring and fall Mack Days fishing contests hosted by the tribes.
“Our overall objective in putting this all together is conservation,” said CSKT fisheries biologist Barry Hansen. “From the very beginning, we’ve been focused on reducing the number of lake trout to benefit both bull trout and cutthroats. We realized early on this would be an expensive operation.”
The biannual Mack Days alone costs the tribes about $200,000 every year. A newer effort that began in 2014 to use gill nets to further suppress lake trout numbers has added even more expense.
From the onset, tribal officials have been adamant that all the fish harvested from the lake be put to good use. Over the years, food banks from Missoula to Whitefish have benefited from the more than 70 tons of fish the tribes have donated to feed the hungry.
That won’t change.
The seven-month-long netting operation has added thousands of fish that need to be processed. Next year, the tribes will launch a new and bigger boat that should ramp up the netting operation.
With a relatively new machine that can fillet a lake trout or whitefish in seconds, tribal officials saw an opportunity to recoup some of those expenses and ensure the harvested fish don’t go to waste.
“We wanted to find a way to help offset some of those costs,” Hansen said. “To be able to sell the fish commercially, we had to create a corporate structure. We needed to an independent program that could do the marketing and the sales. It was a way to let the lake trout pay for themselves.”
And so, Native Fish Keepers Inc. was formed.
So far, the only grocery store that consistently carries the vacuum-packed, flash-frozen fillets fresh from Flathead Lake is Super One in Polson.
That’s about to change.
“We’re working with a distributor to get our product in stores in restaurants in Montana and Idaho,” said Native Fish Keepers marketing director Lynn DuCharme.
The response from those who’ve discovered the flash-frozen fillets has been encouraging.
“Everyone has been really impressed with our product,” DuCharme said. “We’re getting really good feedback from people. At this point, we’re working to build and grow our market.”
The idea of finding a way for the native trout conservation program to pay its own way is unique in the West, where millions have been spent to reduce populations of non-native lake trout whose voracious appetite often comes at the expense of native fish.
In places like Yellowstone and Glacier national parks and at Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille, the lake trout captured in gill nets don’t end up on anyone’s dinner plate.
“In most places where lake trout have been identified as a big problem to native species, the decision has been made to get after it in an effort to accomplish something quick,” Hansen said. “The idea is to throw a few million dollars at it and get it done.”
But no one has been able to totally eradicate lake trout.
The CSKT have no preconceived notion that will happen in Flathead Lake, either.
Starting with an estimated 1.5 million lake trout in Flathead Lake, Hansen said the tribes understood that reducing lake trout numbers enough to provide an opening for the return of native trout was going to take a long time.
The experts who provided that first lake trout population estimate said the tribes would have to figure out a way to remove 143,000 lake trout a year in order to start seeing a reduction in the overall population in the lake.
That hasn’t happened.
Last year, with both angling and netting, about 100,000 lake trout were caught. In the 15-year history of Mack Days, fishermen have caught a little more than 570,000 lake trout.
Still, Hansen said there are subtle signs, from 25 different matrices that measure the population, that lake trout numbers could be on the decline.
Those early indicators include a growing number of young lake trout, and indications the fish appear to maturing earlier.
“That could be a sign of less competition that could result in more rapid growth and earlier maturity as the fish adapt to the lower populations of larger fish,” he said. “Right now, we are working to strike the right balance. This isn’t like the 'Deadliest Catch' where they might make thousands of dollars in a single catch.”
“If we are going to make a difference, we have to keep going day after day,” Hansen said.
This winter’s netting operation will go as long as the weather permits. Once freezing temperatures arrive, the operation will cease until March.
While the focus is on catching lake trout in about the 8-year-old range that provides the prime-sized fillets for the marketplace, Hansen said the netting operation does occasionally catch whitefish and even a bull trout every now and then.
By setting the nets in different locations and depths where lake trout are more prevalent, that accidental catch of the threatened species is minimal, he said.
The nets work best for fish close to that 22-inch-long range. The large trophy-sized lake trout rarely end up in the boat.
“That’s really not what we’re after,” Hansen said. “We don’t process the really large fish due to concerns over mercury. They usually fall out of the net because the mesh is too small for their heads to get through.”
No one knows for sure just what the future will hold if the tribes are successful in reducing the lake trout population in Flathead Lake.
This past summer, fishermen on the lake found success in catching whitefish, another popular non-native fish for anglers.
The population of whitefish in Flathead Lake far outnumbers lake trout, but they aren’t nearly as easy to catch with a rod and reel. For the better part of the year, whitefish subsist on mysis shrimp, midges and clams, and remain leery of anglers’ lures.
In order for fishermen to have any success, another non-native species has to do well. If the annual hatch of perch is successful, fishermen can fool the whitefish feasting on the huge balls on perch minnows.
“We know that lake trout like perch, too,” Hansen said. “At this point, we don’t know how reducing lake trout will impact perch. It does have the potential of adding to that popular fishery in the future.”
The impact of reducing the numbers of predacious lake trout could be felt upstream of the Flathead Lake.
When the cutthroat population in Yellowstone Lake was decimated by an explosion of lake trout, Hansen said the ramifications didn’t stop at the lake shore.
“The whole ecosystem there reverberated,” he said. “We know that grizzlies shifted from fish to eating elk calves. …This effort isn’t just about Flathead Lake. It’s about the whole watershed. There are many land management agencies that are hoping that we will be successful.”
For instance, the U.S. Forest Service is required to take a hard look at how any of its management actions will affect bull trout, a threatened species. One of the barriers to recovering that native fish is the lake trout that breed in Flathead and then work their way upstream.
“We are the only ones that can address that problem,” Hansen said.
Native Fish Keepers new CEO Cindy Bras-Benson has taken the lead in conducting the Mack Days event for years. She knows that some fishermen worry about the potential loss of that fishery to anglers.
She is proud in the Tribal Council’s decision to do what it can to preserve native species like the cutthroat and bull trout.
“If we chose to not do anything, in 50 years from now our grandchildren would wonder why we didn’t at least try to save them,” Bras-Benson said. “Those native species could just disappear. People need to educate themselves to understand their importance. … I commend the Tribal Council. They said we are going to try to make a difference.”