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By Thomas Garcia
QCS Senior Writer
Biologists with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (GFD) have determined the underwater blast at Ute Lake on Aug. 16, which killed more than 900 fish, will have no long-term impacts on fish or the lake.
“After examining the lake, we have no concerns regarding the health of the fish or the lake as a result of the blast,” said Mike Sloane, GFD Fisheries Division chief.
The Aug. 16 detonation was part of the construction for an intake structure, the first phase of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Utility Authority’s Ute Water Project that is designed eventually to carry Ute Lake water to locations in Curry and Roosevelt counties.
The blast killed six bluegill–a game fish, seven common carp and 920 gizzard shad, which are a plentiful food source for many species of fish in the lake, but they are unattractive to anglers, according to a GFD news release.
Killed fish were collected from only from a small area offshore from the North Shore neighborhood, where the underwater blast occurred, Rachel Shockley, Game and Fish Dept. spokesperson said. In previous fish counting activities that involve temporarily stunning fish in small areas with intentional electric shocks, she said, gizzard shad counts in those areas have numbered up to 1,000.
The contractor also was required to detonate small “scaring” charges one minute prior to underwater blasting to encourage fish to swim away fromthe blast area. Shockley said ASI Constructors, the construction company that is building the Ute Water Project, documented the “scaring” charges.
The dead fish were collected, catalogued and placed on ice, so any game fish could be saved for human use, and the construction company’s biologist reported results to the department.
“What has us concerned is there is no direct oversight by the Department of Game and Fish,” said TJ Smith, president of the Logan/Ute Lake Chamber of Commerce.
Smith said he was concerned because GFD used information from a biologist hired by the contractor instead of having its own biologist present during the blasting and construction.
“There needs to be oversight from an impartial, objective view,” Smith said.
Sloane said department biologists returned to Ute Lake on Aug. 27, to measure water quality at the dam and the intake after 30 dead catfish were reportedly found on shore and floating near the dam the previous weekend, one week after the blast. He said biologists found only one dead catfish and determined that water quality parameters were normal.
Smith said the department responded to these incidents after the fact. DFG would have been able to collect more data and specimens had a DFG biologist been placed on site during activities related to the underwater blasting, smith said.
Department Sport-fish Program Manager Eric Frey said it is possible that the catfish were injured by a shockwave from the underwater blast and it ultimately caused their delayed deaths. Other possible causes include toxins in the water, and more common natural causes such as disease, parasites, stress or even lightning.
“It is important for anglers or anyone who notices groups of dead fish to contact Game and Fish in a timely manner,” Frey said. “If we can get on site quickly, we can better identify what caused the deaths.”
The Game and Fish Dept. has worked closely with ASI to reduce impacts to fish by prohibiting construction activities during specific spawning times, the GFD news release said.
Two days before the blast, local volunteers had partnered with the department to help stock bass in areas near the mouths of Ute Creek and the Canadian River. Almost 300,000 fingerling bass were stocked in Ute Lake and nearby waters. The initiative was part of the Department’s long-term commitment to recreational bass fishing.
Sloane said no species of bass were found among the dead fish collected.