Burbot, though native to some waterways in the United States, have started to cause problems in the Green River. While burbot may be a native part of other ecosystems, the freshwater cod species is invasive in southwest Wyoming. In fact, the origin of the invasion is thought to be an overzealous angler who wanted access to the species a little closer to home, according to Eric Hansen, an Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) specialist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department office in Green River in a report from sweetwaterNOW.
Burbot are large predators, so their presence in the Green River could spell trouble for native predator populations like bass as well as prey populations. Native predators may be outcompeted or have their spawn eaten, leading to declines in recruitment rates and overall population. For prey fish, having a new and hungry predator in the region means the populations are under greater strain and may not be able to sustain population levels.
While burbot have certainly become an issue in the Green River, they are nowhere near as damaging or pervasive as invasives in the Great Lakes. Still, the Wyoming Fish and Game Department is focused on limiting the population size in order to keep the problem under control. To do this, the WFGD has developed a few approaches: tagging and tracking burbot in the Green River and holding fishing derbies that focus on catching the fish.
Like many other resource and wildlife management departments, the WFGD tracks the movements and behaviors of their invasives very closely. Burbot tagged with PIT tags gather data while the fish is moving through waterways, data which is then transmitted to receivers when the fish swims nearby.
In 2016, the department wanted to get the local community more involved and local high school students rose to the cause. Equipped with arduinos, the students worked to help build a suggested management strategy to keep the burbot out of the river. According to Arduino, “Arduino is an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software.” Meaning that an arduino is a platform that can be easily programmed to meet project needs as they read inputs and turn them into an output.
Green River High School students were essential for the project as they were able to help a great deal with the fieldwork necessary. In a news report from the University of Wyoming, Allison Baas, a former teacher of biology, college prep biology and physical science to 9-12th graders at Green River High School, explained, “We have three systems that will record data for frequencies of transmitters from fish and temperature of the river. This is the big project that the [college prep biology] students are taking part in with the Wyoming Game and Fish and Trout Unlimited.”
According to a professor that was working with Baas on the project, there are three systems deployed that record data from the tags. Data on water temperatures are also gathered at these locations. Tracking the movements and behaviors of burbot are important so that the WGFD can develop more targeted management strategies.
Fishing derbies are often used as a means of controlling invasive fish species, offering a dedicated event and sometimes a prize for catching the targeted fish. In Wyoming, derbies have been held for a few years, often offering cash prizes for anyone who catches a tagged burbot.
Wyoming’s winter derbies have become known as “Burbot Bashes.” Held in the winter, as burbot are more active in cold weather than bass or smelt, anglers are encouraged to go out and catch burbot to help control the population. Fishing derbies are a great way for resource departments to connect with the public and remind local anglers that conservation is for everyone.
Overall, the department has had luck with the program. According to the WGFD, the 2020 bash had nearly 800 participants and 225 teams. In total, 5,565 burbot were caught—a new record for the event at the time. While the bashes are unlikely to totally eliminate the species from the Green River, the event can help keep the species manageable in the area.
While both of these management strategies have had overall success, the WFGD has been realistic in its goals for the species. Wyoming Public Radio reports that John Walrath, Regional Fish Biologist with the WFGD, explains, “I don’t know if it’s realistic to ever get rid of burbot in the drainage, so it’s just something that we’re going to see. If we can get the burbot population pushed back enough, that the bass can at least sustain themselves, that would be a win-win.”