A look at cui-ui spawning season at Pyramid Lake
NIXON, Nev. — The cui-ui (pronounced “KWEE-wee”) is a lake suckerfish species that is a living prehistoric artifact of the last ice age, curiously studied by biologists and highly revered by the Northern Paiute people.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the abundance of cui-ui not only established a traditional fishing heritage among tribal members, but served as a critical source of survival food through harsh winters — so much so that the region’s Paiute who settled in northwestern Nevada came to be known as the Kooyooe Tukadu, or “cui-ui eaters.”
The species is known to live up to 50 years, migrating to the lower Truckee River to reproduce. Pyramid Lake is the only place in the world where they live, and the species is carefully protected by the staff of the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
This spring, Vivian Olds, a former teacher at Pyramid Lake High School, took a drive out to the Marble Bluff Dam area at Pyramid Lake see if the cui-ui were spawning.
“Luckily, they were,” she said. “Roy Hicks (of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe) and Tom Bland of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were gracious enough to let me observe and photograph as they brought the fish up in a fish elevator to be weighed and measured and released into the river.”
“In the past, I took my students to the Marble Bluff dam on field trips to view this amazing event. It’s one they will never forget,” Olds added, adding that she was fortunate to also witness several American white pelicans, the largest of the pelican species, taking advantage of the annual cui-ui spawning migrations.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, cui-ui inhabited both Pyramid Lake and Winnemucca Lake prior to the 20th century.
Pyramid Lake levels dropped by more than 80 feet and Winnemucca Lake became dry after the construction of the Derby Dam in 1905. This decline in Pyramid Lake elevation caused severe erosion and formation of a delta that prevented the cui-ui from migrating into the lower Truckee River.
Cui-ui were saved from extinction by the construction of the Marble Bluff dam and Fish Passage facility in 1976. There are now more than 2 million adults.
Due to Endangered Species Act protections, people can no longer legally fish for cui-ui. However, tribal leaders remain passionate about persuading young Paiutes to take a more active interest in their cultural traditions and in the future of fisheries conservation.
In fact, long before the species was federally protected, it was the annual spring spawning event that drew bands of Paiutes together as well as other neighboring tribes from all over the region for hundreds of years to fish, eat and strengthen social bonds.
As tribal members age, leaders say their language and traditional practices are slowly falling by the wayside. Those who watched their elders hand tie dip nets from plant fibers and cast massive treble hooks into the surge of spawning cui ui at the delta as children are now elders themselves who can only rely on stories and old photographs to help educate their children.
“Our younger members are far removed from their Kooyooe heritage today,” Vinton Hawley, Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal chairman at the time, told the UFWS in 2017. “Right now, continuing to educate our youth and each other about our ancestral connection to this land and to these important fish is the best that can be done to keep our traditions alive.” O
With the Nevada Indian Commission’s offices located on the Stewart Indian School campus, Stacey Montooth is reminded every day of the culture and lands she is working to preserve and the welfare of her people she is striving to improve.