Burbot: Biology, Ecology and Management

Publication Number 1, Fisheries Management Section, American Fisheries Society V.L. Paragamian and D.W. Willis, editors.

The Burbot Gets its Overdue Respect
Vaughn L. Paragamian
Idaho Department of Fish and Game

After tens of thousands of years, since man first walked erect, the burbot Lota lota was given it’s long overdue respect at the International Burbot Symposium held in Baltimore, Maryland, July 1998. The symposium and the Proceedings, published in July of 2000, were the first of their kind dedicated exclusively to the exchange of knowledge and promotion of thoughtful burbot management. An early reviewer described these Proceedings as “gripping”, “spellbinding”, and “I couldn’t put it down”. Certainly, a book of this nature about such a mysterious fish must have a broad appeal.

The unusual life history of the burbot has made it particularly vulnerable to human infringements on its environment and it is highly exploitable. Only one other species is privileged to have a circumpolar distribution (the northern pike Esox lucius) and to hold international interest to researchers, managers, and anglers throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Not only is the burbot widespread in the north but the vernacular names are varied and colorful. Names such as eelpout, pout, lawyer, mud blower, freshwater cod, ling, lingcod, lush, and cusk are a few that can be printed. Like many other not so popular fish, the burbot is highly esteemed in some angling circles yet disregarded in others.

The International Burbot Symposium was the result of a small sample survey that I conducted several years earlier of managers of burbot populations. The results of the survey indicated that most participants believed burbot were important contributors to fisheries but were managed with liberal regulations lacking biological foundation.

World experts from eight countries attended the International Burbot Symposium and provided their expert testimonies to this poorly understood and mysterious fish. The Proceedings, now available, contains 170 pages from twenty investigations and case histories from the collapse of burbot populations, documentation of unique behavioral traits, to an angling perspective. The book contains several photos including a record sized fish and a spawning “ball” of burbot, a sight witnessed by only a few. The three chapters on Biology, Ecology, and Management contain sixteen original papers and four Extended Abstracts.

The most complete overview of burbot biology and life history known for burbot leads off the Biology section, followed by studies of genetics, early life history, and maturity and spawning characteristics. Burbot are highly synchronized in their spawning migrations and two manuscripts document the age at first maturity and timing of spawning runs. For instance, the spawning run of burbot in a small tributary to Columbia Lake, British Columbia, peaked within several days of the same day of the year, in three of four years. No evidence for the hypothesis of nonconsecutive spawning or “rest” years has been found. Research in Finland documented the annual variation in total activity of burbot. Burbot are often thought of as cold water fish but laboratory studies have shown them more to be more thermophilic than several salmonids. The final paper in this chapter presents a significant contribution to early life history and the influence of temperature on egg incubation time and development.

The chapter on Ecology study provides evidence to why burbot are abundant in some systems, such as the Great Lakes and not others. Manuscripts in this chapter address the interaction of various planktivores and the abundance of burbot larvae, correlations with eutrophication, and effects of human disturbance. An example of the devastating effect of mans alterations of an ecosystem and burbot stocks is presented in a paper about the collapse of burbot stocks in the Kootenai River, Idaho, and Kootenay Lake British Columbia. A dam constructed on the Kootenai River and its operation altered the winter flow regime. Now winter flows during the burbot spawning migration season are three times higher than pre-dam conditions. These flows are an impediment to burbot spawning migration and may be why this population is reproductively dysfunctional.

Participants at the symposium agreed that management of burbot stocks through use of detailed life history and population dynamics data is almost unheard of, excepting Alaska and some European countries. The Management chapter in the Proceedings provides insight into size structure indices, age and growth, affects of sea lamprey predation, angling, and describes a unique sampling net.

Don’t relegate burbot to historical accounts! Get your own copy of the proceedings by contacting Vaughn L. Paragamian, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, 2750 Kathleen Avenue, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho 83815, USA email: [email protected] and read about how important these fisheries once were and could be again. The book alone is $18.00, shipped in the U.S. it is $22.00, shipped to Canada it is $27.00, and shipped to Europe it is $37.00. U. S. currency only check or money order to V.L. Paragamian or Fisheries Management Section AFS, please remember to include your name and full return address