About 300 fish in the Animas River were saved Wednesday from the deadly runoff from the 416 Fire that in recent days has killed thousands of fish in the stretch north of Durango down to the New Mexico line.
“Now, they’ll have a second chance,” said Toby Mourning, manager of the Durango fish hatchery. “It was the right thing to do.”
Much-needed moisture arrived in Southwest Colorado earlier this week, but rains over the 416 Fire burn scar have brought down ash and dirt that is suffocating fish, causing widespread die-offs in the Animas River.
It’s the perfect deadly combo for fish, Mourning said.
The ash from the 416 Fire washing into the Animas combined with the runoff from Tuesday’s mudslides north of Durango are not diluted as the river hits town.
The Animas, which is experiencing abnormally low flows, was running at about 200 cubic feet per second before major storms dropped heavy rain earlier this week. After the storms, the river rose to more than 500 cfs, mostly comprised of the deadly runoff.
The Animas River is usually running around 1,000 cfs at this time of year.
Fish are further stressed by abnormally high temperatures in the river. This week, the Animas recorded temperatures above 70 degrees, according to a U.S Geological Survey gauge.
As a result, it’s likely that not many fish survived this week’s damaging events, Mourning said. Even the most resilient fish in the river – carp – are washing ashore dead.
On Wednesday afternoon, at the height of the suffocating runoff, Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff saw fish coming up on shore, keeping their gills barely in the water, desperate for air.
“We said we got to do something,” Mourning said.
CPW collected about 300 mottled sculpin, two adult bluehead suckers and one speckled dace in a net and put them in a water tank to keep the fish alive while the tainted water passed.
CPW said it will release the fish, which are native to the Animas, once the water clears. Fish usually rebound after fire runoff damages a watershed. This act, however, will give the stretch of river behind the fish hatchery a jump-start.
CPW is asking anglers to not fish in the Animas River from noon to 7 p.m.
It’s unclear how far down the 416 Fire runoff is affecting the Animas. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe declined to comment. A spokeswoman with New Mexico Game and Fish said a biologist would visit the river Friday morning.
It’s likely, however, that trout in Durango’s “Gold Medal Water” fishing spot did not survive, said Jim White, an aquatic biologist for CPW.
White said it’s not possible to move the fish in danger to another waterway, for fear of spreading disease. And, because it is so hard to catch fish in a river, there’s no feasible way to save the fish in a meaningful way, he said.
CPW had stocked about 47,000 brown and rainbow trout in June. Because of issues with water quality in the Animas River in Durango, fish are unable to reproduce on their own.
CPW in the fall will go out on the Animas and do an official fish count to better understand the impacts the 416 Fire runoff on the fishery.
Tom Knopick, co-owner of Duranglers Flies and Supplies, said fish kill from the 416 Fire runoff was inevitable. The same thing happened to the Florida and Pine rivers after the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002, he said.
“But we’re not looking at it as all doom and gloom,” he said. “I always believe fisheries are much more resilient than we generally give them credit for.”
If the chocolate brown waters of the Animas River aren’t enough to dissuade anglers from fishing the river, Knopick said the fly shop is encouraging people to find other regional fishing opportunities.
“It’s (the Animas) not fishable right now,” he said. “But there’s still an incredible amount of fishing to be had when the Animas isn’t an option.”
CPW’s Mourning said it will be a case-by-case basis whether the department is able to catch and save fish in the future.