MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
It's a bit bony, a little toughie, but the northern pike is a favorite of fishermen in many parts of the country. It can put up quite a fight. In California, state wildlife officials have no such affection for it. They are in the midst of a $17 million operation to poison the northern pike out of Lake Davis in the Sierra Nevada.
Tamara Keith of member station KQED explains why.
TAMARA KEITH: No one knows how the northern pike got from their native waters to Lake Davis. But most people figure they were brought in by someone from Minnesota or nearby who missed fishing for the feisty pike. But here in California, they're an unwelcome invader.
Mr. PETER MOYLE (Fish Biologist, University of California Davis): They're a voracious, fast-growing predator. We don't want them around.
KEITH: Peter Moyle is a fish biologist at U.C. Davis who specializes in invasive species. Pike can get quite large and devour fish up to half their size, sometimes even waterfowl and small mammals. Moyle points out that Lake Davis is in the Sacramento River watershed, which drains into the ecologically fragile Sacramento San Joaquin Delta. The delta houses numerous endangered species and supplies water to 25 million Californians. Not a good place for a top predator like the northern pike, says Moyle.
Mr. MOYLE: And even though they're spending millions of dollars trying to eradicate it now, and hopefully it'll be successful, that amount of money will be small compared to the damage it will do if it gets into the Sacramento River system.
KEITH: The California Department of Fish and Game tried once before to poison the pike out of the lake in 1997. But like the plot of a horror movie, 18 months later, they were back with a vengeance. Since then, the state has tried electro-fishing, netting, even explosives, and now it's back to poison.
Up at Lake Davis, it's war. Fishing game biologists steer boats onto the lake's still waters to take temperature readings in preparation for a massive offensive. Starting today, there will be two dozen boats like these pumping thousands of gallons of a fish-killing poison called rotenone into the lake. The poison will also be fed into miles of tributaries and ponds around the lake.
Ed Pert, who's leading the pike eradication project, says the rotenone should knock out everything with gills: pike, trout, catfish, even aquatic bugs.
Mr. ED PERT (Northern Pike Eradicaton Project): There's no one that wants to put a bunch of chemicals in the water. I want to be clear about that. That's just something that we have to do because it's the last alternative that we have. No other alternatives will eradicate pike at Lake Davis.
KEITH: The pike takeover has been nothing but trouble for the town of Portola just south of Lake Davis. The lake used to be Portola's drinking water source, that is, until the first time the state tried to kill the pike with rotenone. Back then, hundreds of residents protested and the mayor even chained himself to a buoy to try to stop the poisoning. This time, the opposition is muted and most have come to see it as necessary.
Sara Bensinger owns the Grizzly Store, a little bait and tackle shop right by the lake.
Ms. SARA BENSINGER (Owner, Grizzly Store): It's been a long battle, a long, long battle.
KEITH: She rests against a counter in the hamburger stand she built next to her shop, back when times were good. She hasn't opened it for business in three years. She says the pike ate up Lake Davis' trophy trout and drove away her customers. She can't wait until the pike are gone and the state restocks the lake with trout.
Ms. BENSINGER: Next year's going to be great. It'll be just like when I first got here. It'll start all over again. We'll have great fish. Fish and Game has assured me that they're going to plant a ton of fish, big fish, in-between fish, fingerlings, all kinds of stuff. And life will be good all over again.
KEITH: It will take a couple of years to know whether the operation was a success. One leading biologist describes it as a crapshoot. And if the pike do return, they're likely here to stay. Fish and Game officials say this is their last best effort to eradicate the pike in Lake Davis and in California.
For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith.