Critics concerned Vt. lamprey poisoning harming salamander population

Published: Nov. 5, 2020 at 1:09 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Sea lamprey chemical treatments in local watersheds have been credited with helping the survival of Lake Champlain’s trout, salmon, sturgeon, and other fish. But some critics are concerned the treatments to kill the parasite are also killing off a shy amphibian, and they want the state to step in.

If you’d passed by the dam in Milton on the Lamoille River 10 days ago you’d have seen protesters with banners chanting, “Who decides on lampricide? We decide on lampricide!”

The motley crew of environmentalists, herpetologists, and other concerned citizens want to be a voice for an antisocial amphibian -- the mudpuppy. “We care about protecting the mudpuppy salamander. And that salamander is threatened by the continued use of lampricide in Vermont, and specifically the Lamoille River, which we believe is the best mudpuppy habitat in the state,” said Ira Powsner, the protest’s organizer.

He says according to the Vermont Herp Atlas, 70 percent of mudpuppy sightings in Vermont are in this river. “We know that amphibians are susceptible to chemical pollutants because they have skin that absorbs pollutants easier than other creatures, and the mudpuppy specifically have external gills because they’re fully aquatic, so that means they are really susceptible to chemicals,” Powsner said.

He points to what happened here in 2009 when 509 mudpuppies were found dead after lamprey treatments. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says they’re still not sure why. “The one time it happened, we truly don’t know exactly what happened. There was no mistake as far as we know for what caused it. We can’t explain necessarily what the actual cause was,” said the USFWS' Brad Young. He says four years later, no mudpuppies were found dead at that site. That, he says, is what usually happens. “We’ve done over 100 lampricide treatments in Lake Champlain. And of those, we rarely have an incident of mudpuppy mortality. We usually find less than 20 on average in any treatment that we do.”

Lamprey treatments have been happening on the Vermont and New York sides of the lake for 30 years to combat the sea lamprey. The invasive species take a bite out of trophy fish populations -- literally. They latch onto the fish, feed on their blood, and then find another victim.

Young says their goal is to see fewer than 25 wounds on a lake trout and 15 on an Atlantic salmon. He says we aren’t meeting those targets yet. “We never expect to be able to eradicate all the lamprey, but if we can get the number of lamprey down, we can have the fishery rebound and be able to restore native lake trout and Atlantic salmon,” he said.

The Lamoille is the fourth river they’ve used lampricide on this year. Young says they deliberately use lower-concentration mixes to reduce collateral damage. “It’s barely enough to kill sea lamprey, but it’s not enough to affect other species, so it’s a very fine line that we run with the concentration,” he said.

A couple of mudpuppies were rescued the day protesters turned out for the treatment in Milton. Powsner says the burden of proof is on the USFWS to show them the data that proves mudpuppies aren’t being harmed. He and other protesters want the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to make USFWS count the mudpuppy population in the river. “We believe that it’s really important to go ahead with a study like that before you go ahead and apply chemical pesticides,” he said.

Young says they’re willing to work with ANR to study mudpuppies. Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore says they can reassess the lampricide permit if they notice any harm to mudpuppies or other species. She also says ANR hasn’t found any evidence that mudpuppies in the Lamoille River have been impacted by treatments. She pointed out that Vermont Fish & Wildlife has also been capturing and relocating dozens of mudpuppies above Peterson Dam in Milton so that they will be out of the treatment zone. She says they are not considering alternatives to chemical treatments, like barriers, because they don’t work in rivers the size of the Lamoille.

Related Stories:

Balancing the pros and cons of lampricide treatments

Record fish proof Lake Champlain sea lamprey control program working

Wildlife Watch: The challenging migration of landlocked Atlantic salmon

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