Letter: Sculpin the canaries of the Eagle River | VailDaily.com

Letter: Sculpin the canaries of the Eagle River

David K. Fulton
Executive Director
Eagle River Watershed Council
Vail, CO Colorado

Although recent articles on sculpin (their presence or absence) in the Eagle River were interesting, unless you were a biologist you might not have figured out why they are even remotely important to the average citizen of Eagle County. So instead of talking about this little fish, let’s talk about canaries.

Early coal miners needed to know when methane and carbon monoxide gas were present in the mine. The canary in the mine, though low-tech, was an extremely effective warning system and rather easy to read.

The canaries would chirp and sing and make noise all day long. But, if the carbon monoxide levels got too high, the canaries would have trouble breathing, and maybe die. When the canaries were no longer singing, miners would know that the gas levels were too high. They would leave the mine quickly to avoid potential explosions, poisoned air or both.

So how does this relate to the sculpin in the Eagle River?

Fish biologists, when studying our rivers, can give you a pretty good idea of water quality by the species of the fish present in a particular stretch of river. To test for quality, biologists get out in the river and shock the fish electrically. The stunned fish come to the surface and are easily collected and counted. Species, number of fish per species, etc. help determine the river’s health.

The presence of sculpin in a river is an excellent indication that water quality is good, especially relating to zinc content. Sculpin cannot tolerate zinc, just like the canary cannot tolerate carbon monoxide.

We can monitor the cleaning of the Super Fund site on the Eagle River by the Eagle Mine by the presence or absence of sculpin. The state holds a “Rule Making Hearing” regarding Eagle River standards this June, but the process is already in motion. If we ask the state for water quality standards that will support sculpin (which were there before the Eagle Mine started to pollute the river with metals), we know water quality there will be protected.

Your cat can “swallow the canary” but don’t let your cat near our sculpin!

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