Changes to habitat map to affect more than fish |

Changes to habitat map to affect more than fish

It’s one of the mysteries of Lake Tahoe. Each summer, thousands of small native fish gather to spawn in the shallow gravel beds along the lake’s West Shore.

But, while much of the West Shore serves as a hatchery for Lahontan redsides and speckled dace, little spawning has been observed on the lake’s East Shore.

After more than 10 years of study of Lake Tahoe’s fishery, the Tahoe Research Group has produced a new, refined map of prime fish habitat and spawning beds in the lake. Next month, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s governing board will consider adopting the new map as part of the agency’s five-year report card on the lake’s environment.

Compared to the current map, produced in 1984, the proposed habitat map adds 720 more acres of prime fish habitat to Lake Tahoe, for a total of 3,495 acres. The TRPA’s long-range goal is to achieve 5,948 acres of prime habitat.

“The map isn’t really a change; it’s more of a refinement to what we knew already,” said Colleen Shade, an associate TRPA planner who oversees fisheries and wildlife.

In the long run, while the new map does not solve the riddle of why native fish prefer to spawn on the West Shore, the changes could affect humans more than fish. That’s because the TRPA currently prohibits the building of new piers in prime fish habitat areas.

“We’re glad to have a new, more accurate map, but maybe we should wait until the (anti-pier) policy is changed, said Jan Brisco, the director of the Tahoe Lakefront Property Owners Association.

The shorezone partnership committee, an advisory panel representing a diversity of public and private interests, has proposed loosening restrictions on the construction of piers in prime fish habitat areas. The group recommended that new piers should be allowed, if remedial action is taken to mitigate the impact on spawning fish.

Since the adoption of its 1987 regional plan, the TRPA has prohibited new piers in spawning and prime habitat areas.

But in a study completed last year, the Tahoe Research Group said Lake Tahoe’s native fish showed a remarkable indifference to the kind of disruption from activities associated with piers. Such distractions as noise, bright lights and the presence of humans or dogs wading in the shallows hardly interfered with the single-minded purpose shown by the spawning fish.

More important than preventing any disturbance, said biologist Brant Allen of the Tahoe Research Group, is the need to preserve and restore gravel spawning beds.

Drawing lessons from that study, the partnership committee suggested that new piers could be allowed in habitat and spawning areas if the builder were willing to build a rock structure at the end of the pier that would serve as an artificial reef.

Representatives of the basin’s property owners support the new direction, but say that it is too soon to adopt a new map if the existing restrictions are not loosened at the same time.

But not everyone was thrilled with the changes in the habitat map.

“We find it amazing that there is now no prime fish habitat on the East Shore,” said Jeff Cutler of the League to Save Lake Tahoe at a TRPA meeting last week. “We’re greatly reducing the amount of in-lake habitat we are protecting.”

Cutler said the environmental group may challenge any attempt by the TRPA to drop restrictions on construction in fish habitat zones.

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