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Breathing Under Water

By Erin Loury, FISHBIO
11/16/15 -- Oxygen is the key to life. All vertebrate animals require oxygen to live, and most of us cannot survive beyond a few short minutes without a generous oxygen supply. As we wrote in a previous blog post, it is much harder to breathe in water than in air, but fishes overcome this challenge through their highly specialized gills (see An efficient exchange). Water holds much less oxygen than air, yet some fish species can survive even in water with extremely low oxygen levels. The Crucian carp of Norway has evolved a particularly extraordinary ability to survive in small lakes and ponds that freeze over, becoming completely devoid of oxygen for months during the frigid northern European winter. What makes the Crucian carp truly remarkable is its special way to generate energy by converting the sugar glycogen into ethanol for survival when there is no oxygen in the water (Nilsson and Renshaw 2004).

Water hyacinth, photo by Fishbio
Water hyacinth, Photo courtesy of FISHBIO

Scientists don't think Crucian carp get tipsy from the ethanol they produce, but they can use ethanol to fill some of the same roles as oxygen in their metabolic pathways. However, this process is much less efficient than using oxygen, so the carp must reduce their energy demands - which they do by shutting down parts of the brain. Scientists think Crucian carp become temporarily blind and deaf during the winter when they are in water with extremely low oxygen. They can afford to lose vision and hearing because they are the only vertebrates that can survive these extreme conditions, so there are no predators to fear. The key to the carp's survival in these conditions is low water temperature: survival decreases from months to just days when water temperature is increased from 0°C to room temperature.

In California's rivers, low oxygen levels are now more frequently threatening native fish species that lack the specialized metabolism of Crucian carp, and are particularly vulnerable to the deadly combination of warm, low oxygen water. Currently, concerns are increasing about declines in river oxygen levels due to the invasion of extremely prolific water hyacinth in the Central Valley. Water hyacinth was introduced to the United States from the Amazon River more than 100 years ago, but with recent warming water temperatures, its growth rate has increased. In warm water, a water hyacinth plant can double in size every 10 days, resulting in large mats of this invasive weed clogging Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta waterways.

Such thick vegetative mats have devastating effects on oxygen levels in the river below. Dense populations of oxygen-consuming bacteria and fungi accumulate around hyacinth mats to feed on the constantly shedding plant material. These microorganisms consume the oxygen in the water, leaving little for fish. To make matters worse, dense hyacinth mats inhibit fresh water flow and gas exchange with the air, which would replenish the depleted oxygen. Though California state agencies are spending millions of dollars a year to manage water hyacinth, no effective eradication techniques have yet been discovered, so the problem is here to stay for the time being.

However, some water oxygen issues are manageable. Several years ago, water oxygen levels in the Stockton Deep Water Ship Channel on the San Joaquin River were found to fall dangerously low for adult salmon migrating to their natal rivers. This is due to biodegradable waste that drains from industrial, urban and agricultural areas into the Delta, where it supports dense populations of microorganisms that consume oxygen. Water oxygen concentrations of at least 6.0 mg/l are required for migrating salmon to survive, but levels were dropping as low as 2.0 mg/l. The good news is that a giant aeration system was constructed in 2007, which delivers up to 10,000 pounds of oxygen daily into the Deep Water Shipping Channel. This aeration system now maintains water oxygen levels above 5.2 mg/l through most of the year, and 6.2 mg/l when adult salmon are migrating past the channel. Though resident Californian fish can flourish in oxygen levels far lower than terrestrial air-breathers, their abilities are a far cry from the amazing adaptations of Crucian carp, which can survive in water devoid of oxygen. We have our work cut out for ourselves if we hope to protect Californian fishes from low oxygen caused from high-nutrient run off and aggressive invasive plants like water hyacinth.

FISHBIO is a dedicated group of research scientists, engineers, and technicians that specialize in counting, tracking, and analyzing trends in fish and wildlife populations throughout the world. An expert staff, technical capacity, and state-of-the-art equipment make FISHBIO a trailblazer in aquatic research. For more information, please visit

Fishing Reports

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Brownie’s Choice
Art work by Isabella Langaman
By Don Webster
Disregard the story’s title. I don’t really have a “first” name. If I did, it would probably be something like Leviathan or Behemoth or maybe Lunker. Officially, I’m a trout. A brown trout. A giant, brown trout. Possibly the biggest, fattest...Full Story
Keddie Ridge
Scouting Deerheart Lake, photo by Phil Akers
Article and photos by Phil “Flip” Akers
11/14/15 -- Adjacent to both Lake Almanor and Mountain Meadows, between the towns of Westwood and Greenville, is a seemingly forgotten piece of backcountry; Keddie Ridge – aka Ridge World – where ancient rocks... Full Story
Let’s check out the Upper Sac
Lake Siskiyou with Mt. Shasta standing sentinel. photo by Phil Akers
Article and photos by Phil "Flip" Akers
09/06/15 -- The Upper Sacramento River – The Upper Sac – begins at Lake Siskiyou’s Box Canyon Dam and continues ~37 miles downstream to Lake Shasta. It is a classic freestone river born from the Mt. Shasta and Mt. Eddy... Full Story
How to make Tuscan Tuna Salad with Fennel By Frank Galusha
05/04/15 -- OK, you went ocean fishing. If your fish is fresh or if you have processed, vacuum packed and frozen your catch properly, there are many ways to enhance your meals. Almost everything taken from the ocean is not... Full Story
German brown trout afternoon in Modoc
german brown trout in Modoc creek.
By Lea Huetteman
09/04/14 -- Catching a German Brown Trout from the creeks in Modoc County is a fine way to spend an afternoon. There are many creeks in this part of California that drain the Warner Mountains. Stream trout fishing in this region opens...Full Story
Throw the kitchen sink at them
Indian Paintbrush is a favorite wildflower that carpets wilderness landscapes. Phil Flip Akers,
Article and photos by Phil Akers
08/20/14 -- Our wilderness areas are special, where Mother Nature is landlord and natural forces operate freely. Within the wilderness you will find no roads, shelters, picnic tables, toilets, or other conveniences. You enter at...Full Story
Humboldt Bay: Busy port, excellent fishery
Woodley Island Marina, Humboldt Bay, Eureka, California
03/06/04 -- Humboldt Bay, a busy commercial harbor and home port to many charter and private offshore fishing boats, is also popular with shore-based anglers and small boaters seeking bottomfish, sharks, crabs and clams...Full Story
Pulled into the pipes: Green Sturgeon
green sturgeon
By Erin Loury, FISHBIO
03/04/14 -- [Posted with permission of FISHBIO] Living in the Sacramento River can be a risky business for juvenile green sturgeon (Acipenser medirostris). The young fish must swim through a gauntlet of water... Full Story
Not Just Any Fish
California Golden Trout, California Heritage Trout Challenge, Not Just Any Fish, Phil
By Phil "Flip" Akers
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