Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Winter Fish Sampling - Not the Warmest of Jobs

As I trudge through about 6 inches of fresh snow in the dark I wonder what the day holds. Most college students are still in their beds at their homes or some tropical place, but not me. I am awake before the sun, before most people in our town. Not because I don’t want to be in my warm bed but because I have fish to set free. I am one of seven STEP students hired by the CRFPO biologists to sample the screwtrap in the lower Walla Walla River with the hopes of catching bull trout to tag so we can monitor their movements out into the Columbia River.

After a few blocks the sun starts to peak over the horizon and I reach the science building at Walla Walla University and head down to the basement hoping that the waders and boots are dry and don’t smell too bad. Carrying my equipment I head out to a snow covered vehicle. After a few minutes of getting a ton of snow off the windows and using the defroster, I discover that I may not be adequately dressed for the weather. Our normal thirty minute drive now takes about forty minutes in four wheel drive on a snow covered road with other drivers who seem to have never seen snow in their lives.

Once on site and dressed in river appropriate gear, that was not dry and is quite rank, my partner and I encounter the ice laced winds that are sweeping across the RV park where the fish trap is located. Stomping through the snow in my boots seems to be difficult as the snow and mud stick to the metal on the bottom of the boots, eventually making me about 4 inches taller. Balancing on these new stilts is nothing compared to attempting to open the first of four frozen locks with my now frozen fingers.

Carrying the rest of our equipment to the river on the short trail seems magical with the fresh snow covering the bushes that line the trail, yet I still stumble on my stilts in unseen holes. We reach the river, its banks lined with ice, the trap spinning perfectly with water splashing to add to the icicles dripping from all parts of the cold metal of the trap. One of us cranks in the trap while the other preps the data sheet and buckets. The trap reaches the shore and we grab our equipment. We hope for two things as we enter the water: not to trip and get soaked, and for our waders to not have any holes in them. Fishing out sticks and debris seems to be the hardest as our fingers’ numbness tells us to save what movement we have left and not yet get our hands wet. The night before has produced so many fish that the water in the trap appears cloudy. To our amazement the catch turns out to be more than 200 fish. Identification starts with us immersing our hands in the ice cold water that is 2 degrees Celsius. After sampling the fish our fingers have turned blue. We must now push out the trap since flows have decreased with the cold temperature, and yes it takes both my partner and I to do it making me aware of muscles I did not know I had. Eventually we get back to the rig, we crank up the heat, get out of our wet clothes, and smack the snow off the bottom of our wading boots. Then we sit and thaw out before we head home to rest before turn around and do it all again that evening.

Over time our group developed a perfect system of working together for efficiency and we also discovered the perfect amount of clothing layers to wear- usually about 6or 7. We discovered the great benefit of thick snow gloves and our hands and bodies eventually became use to the cold and the water no longer phases us. The people working the fish trap have been brought together as a team and the experience has allowed me to see the beauty in the river and the many different species of fish that few people get to see in the cold winter months. It is more than just counting fish and recording data. It is working hard for a better future with the people here today and having fun while doing it.

Submitted by Rebecca Bullard

Monday, February 7, 2011

USFWS Presents Its “Mitchell Act Message” at the First Annual Mitchell Act Program Review Meeting

A number of Columbia River Fisheries Program Office staff attended and participated in a two-day conference at the Portland Double Tree Hotel on January 18 and 19, 2011 to highlight the efforts of the USFWS in conducting its Mitchell Act funded programs. The Mitchell Act was initiated in 1938 and is administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to provide fishery mitigation for Columbia River Basin development, especially hydro-system development, and to help conserve Columbia River salmon and steelhead resources. The Mitchell Act program provides funding in three major program areas: hatchery operations; fish screens and fish ways; and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and hatchery reform. The funding, although administered by NMFS, is distributed to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Yakama Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the USFWS to implement program actions.

The two-day conference on January 18 and 19 was billed as the first annual meeting program review, at least first in recent history, to provide Mitchell Act operators the opportunity to highlight their programs and explain how the Mitchell Act funding they receive is being used to address the goals and objectives of the program. The conference was attended by 80 - 100 agency and tribal staff representatives and presenters and by interested public. NMFS hosted the conference and indicated their desire to make this an annual event for the future that can be used to help set and reshape program direction and help give guidance for future funding decisions for the Mitchell Act program.

A common theme by all agency and tribal representatives that gave presentations was that the Mitchell Act program is a very important program that provides substantial fishing opportunity and fishery benefits to the Pacific Northwest region, as well as fish conservation benefits in the Columbia River Basin. However, there was broad recognition that limited funding has definitely strained the ability of the program to continue to provide these critical benefits. Flat funding since the mid-1990s, reduced buying power for current funding, escalating costs for current program activities, and a whole new set of Endangered Species Act (ESA) driven fishery and hatchery management constraints and costs have definitely taken their toll on program implementation. Program operators have responded by cutting and/or reducing Mitchell Act hatchery production programs in some instances, seeking alternate and/or cost share funding, and prioritizing activities that are most critical to program implementation and program results.

The USFWS made five presentations on the second day of the conference that highlighted its Mitchell Act programs and allowed the Service to “tell its Mitchell Act story”. These five presentations included 1) a general but comprehensive overview of its Mitchell Act hatchery production program, baseline M&E program, fish health program, Abernathy Fish Technology Center (AFTC) program, and newly expanded M&E and hatchery reform program, 2) a focused fish marking, tagging, and bio-sampling program presentation, 3) a focused fish health program presentation, 4) a presentation on recent Eagle Creek winter steelhead and coho ecological interaction studies, and 5) a presentation on recent Gorge area fall Chinook investigations and pre-Condit Dam removal activities in the Big White salmon River. All of these presentations were applauded for their high quality and vivid demonstration of the critical benefits that these USFWS Mitchell Act production programs and M&E programs bring to the Pacific Northwest region for sustainable fisheries and fish conservation.

The USFWS acknowledges the critical nature of the Mitchell Act production program to meeting tribal trust responsibilities; honoring the current 2008-2017 U.S. v. Oregon Management Agreement; meeting Pacific Salmon Treaty production expectations; and meeting other social, economic, and cultural needs and thus has done all that it can within overall budget constraints to maintain these important programs. The USFWS has also been very proactive to implement a number of fish conservation and hatchery reform actions and to expand its M&E programs for its Mitchell Act funded facilities as recommended by recent Hatchery and Scientific Review Group (HSRG) and Hatchery Review Team (HRT) reviews. The challenge is to manage our programs in such a way that they continue to provide the fishery benefits anticipated under the original purpose of the Mitchell Act program while also addressing other biological and legal management constraints on our management actions such as ESA compliance and implementation of hatchery biological opinion terms and conditions.

The USFWS is very proud of its Mitchell Act program efforts and believes its program can best be described as: Quality Stewardship Mitigation for the 21st Century. The USFWS continues to work together with its Columbia River co-manager partners to improve the overall Mitchell Act program and thereby provide the benefits anticipated and honor its promise to the Columbia River Tribes and the American public for continued harvest opportunity, even in the midst of very significant funding and ESA listing and recovery challenges. All of the USFWS powerpoint presentations and those by other agency and tribal presenters will soon be available for viewing at the NMFS webpage for their Mitchell Act program: which is currently being restructured. Readers are encouraged to link to this webpage for further information on the Mitchell Act program and its benefits to the Pacific Northwest region.

Submitted by: Tim W. Roth