High water levels should help unique Bear Lake fish thrive

Image courtesy Scott Tolentino, Utah DWR.

BEAR LAKE – With the high water levels this spring, a small, bottom-feeding fish found only in Bear Lake is expected to thrive. The Bear Lake sculpin spends its life on the lakebed eating worms, plankton, ostracods and occasionally other small fish, but when it comes time to spawn each spring, it moves closer to the shore to attach its eggs on the underside of rocks.

According to Scott Tolentino of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), the large rocks required for spawning are abundant along the outer edge of the lake, but low water levels in recent years has kept them dry. Of the four species of fish endemic to the lake, Tolentino said the Bear Lake sculpin is the one most affected by drought. It isn’t endangered, but it is listed by the DWR as a “species of concern.”

“If the rocks aren’t in the water there is no habitat for sculpin and the population can really be hit pretty hard,” he said. “The nice thing about it is Bear Lake is quite full this year so we’re going to have a really strong class of sculpin.”

There are hundreds of species of sculpin throughout the world. Most of them live in salt water, but there are some found in freshwater lakes and rivers as well. According to Tolentino, the Bear Lake sculpin, or <em>Cottus extensus</em>, can be distinguished from other sculpin by the small spines along its gills, but he said the real giveaway is its eye color, which matches Bear Lake’s famous hue of blue.

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Tolentino said the female sculpin will leave once they lay eggs. The males will fertilize the eggs, then stick around and protect them until they hatch. Even though this springtime process happens fairly close to the shore, don’t expect to go to Bear Lake and easily see them. Not only are most hidden under rocks, but their chameleon-like abilities allow them to blend in. Tolentino said a Bear Lake sculpin on a sandy bottom will have a sandy color, while ones sitting on a gravel bed will have a speckled pattern that matches the rocks.

“If you’re walking along a rocky shoreline and you’re looking for sculpin, they blend in so well along the bottom that you really don’t see them,” he said. “All of a sudden you’ll see something take off and swim away and you’re like, ‘Oh, that was a sculpin.’ You really didn’t see it until it was too late.”

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Once the fertilized eggs are grown, they await a spring storm, when they will all hatch at once. The storm creates waves, helping to shake the juvenile fish from its egg. The sculpin are still sac fry at this point, meaning each fish carries a yolk-sac on its belly that provides the nutrition until it is able to eat for itself and the sac is absorbed. Unable to swim well, the winds and currents scatter the thousands of adolescents throughout the lake. Some become food – even to other cannibalistic sculpin – while others end up on the deep lakebed, where it begins its bottom-feeding life.

“It spends its life right on the bottom the lake, it doesn’t get very big,” Tolentino said. “It only gets up to like five inches or so.

“They’re definitely a unique fish.”

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