Fish in Northwest have new hopes for home
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Scientists in the Pacific Northwest are studying more than a dozen watersheds. Those are areas of land that catch rain and snow. The scientists want to develop templates on habitat restoration. The templates could be used in similar streams to bolster struggling fish populations.
The federal government lists 28 populations of salmon and steelhead on the West Coast that need protections. This is due to low numbers. And it is despite spending millions of dollars every year. The money is for restoration efforts.
The studies aim to make those efforts more successful. They focus on 17 watersheds. Those are in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Northern California and British Columbia. The scientists examine the benefit of everything from dam removal to building artificial beaver dams in tributaries.
Creating templates for habitat restoration could save time and money. They could use strategies known to produce good results in similar habitats in the region. So says George Pess. He is a research fisheries biologist. He works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"The overall goal is to learn enough to be smart about our restoration," he said. The studies will offer recommendations to private, tribal and government entities, he noted. But the studies won't produce any legally binding regulations.
Most of the studies began in the 2000s. Pess said scientists are still discovering what works. The program will require years of monitoring. The scientists are examining how fish use waterways. They want to learn about the challenges salmon and steelhead face. The fish live in the different watersheds.
In previous restoration efforts, officials have removed barriers. The barriers include dams. Removing some of them opens up spawning habitat. The studies go further, as well. They try to determine whether removing the barriers leads fish to change when they go to the ocean and return as adults, Pess said. That is important for fish restoration efforts. Those will need to ensure enough water flows through streams at critical times.
"It's a terrific and much-needed project," said Guido Rahr. He is president of the Wild Salmon Center. It works to protect rivers and wild salmon populations. "They've chosen watersheds with diverse and different geographies. It's really going to be helpful."
Northern Idaho's Potlatch River is a tributary of the Clearwater River. Monitoring started in the Potlatch 2005. Restoration work began in 2009. About 1,000 wild steelhead use the Potlatch.
Last year, state workers counted steelhead spawning beds above an area where a dam had been removed for the first time, said Brian Knoth. He is a fisheries biologist. He works with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Whether opening new habitat increases fish numbers or simply causes the existing population to spread out is a frequent question in the 17 study areas.
To get an answer, scientists place small tags in fish. The tags give off a signal when passing through an electronic field. That allows young fish leaving and then returning as adults to be counted.
On central Oregon's Bridge Creek, workers have built artificial beaver dams. The dams are part of the study, discovering that the real animals moved in to expand on human efforts.
"It's OK if natural beavers join in on the fun," said Stephen Bennett. He is a research associate of watershed sciences at Utah State University. He is involved with that and other studies.
Of the 17 studies, nine are in Washington state. Perhaps the most ambitious involves the Elwha River and the 2012 removal of a 100-foot dam that increased habitat by 300 percent. It more than a doubled spawning beds for Chinook salmon and steelhead above the dam site.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How do dams help the fish?
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