Coastal Cutthroat Trout: up close and personal

From stormwater to fish, video is taking over the world of social media. Another remarkable find in video is below–this time a intimate look at coastal cutthroat trout in the Mt. Hood National Forest. The videographer caught and has skillfully edited some stunning shots of these amazing fish as they prepare redds (nests for eggs), spawn and move about in cold, clear Cascade streams. This is some of the most stunning footage of freshwater fish that I’ve seen yet!

Behind the bubble curtain: The Underwater World of Coastal Cutthroat Trout from David Saiget on Vimeo.

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Saving Suckers

Before I moved back to Oregon, I lived and worked as a watershed-related professional in Arizona. As part of that work, I grew to deeply appreciate the mighty Colorado River watershed. The Colorado is an amazing river–it produces thousands of tons of sediment, rises to extreme heights as the snows melt from the Rockies and until the advent of the 20th century dams along most of its reaches, it sometimes flowed with a ferocity that has swept away whole towns along its banks.  Then it drops to lows as the summertime heat bakes the lowest reaches with temperatures in the low 100s.  Within that challenging system, and in spite of the dams, the Colorado and some its tributaries support an amazing variety of wildlife, including fish that look like something out of the movie Jurassic Park. One such fish is the strange and exotic-looking Razorback Sucker. Living for upwards of 50 years and weighing as much as 13 lbs., the 3 foot long fish are adapted to living in the dark, muddy bottomed river.

Razorback Sucker. Illustration by Joseph R. Tomelleri.

But due to the introduction of millions of non-native fish, and because of changes in the loads of sediment and flow patterns thanks to the many large dams on it, most of these fish face extinction or are functionally gone from the main stem for the foreseeable future. Razorbacks are down to roughly 3,500 individuals in the lower river. Others such as the giant (22″) Bonytail minnow are largely gone from the river altogether.

Readers of the June 7th edition of High Country News got a nice dose of the complexities around trying to save the remaining members of these amazing, prehistoric fish. Check out Hillary Rosner’s excellent piece on saving the Razorback Sucker.  For some equally well done work, check out native fish biologist and photographer Abraham Karam’s wonderful slideshow on the sucker and his work in the Lower Colorado River.

Up here in the Pacific Northwest, we are often accused of being pretty salmon-centric in our thinking.  I encourage you to take a few moments away from our own fine-finned fauna to look at another, equally amazing fish and how the complexities of bringing them back from the brink of near extinction are just as vexing.

Weighing Costs and Risk of Quagga and Zebra Mussels in the Columbia

Photo courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant College Program.

Zebra and Quagga Mussels will cost PNW energy ratepayers a lot of money concludes a draft study by Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Independent Economic Advisory Board. It will also cost other users of the river and its tributaries including agricultural irrigators, municipal water suppliers, marina owners, and fish hatcheries.  Though the study isn’t due out until June, this is a big step towards quantifying the threat of aquatic invasive organisms like Quagga and Zebra (Dreissenid) mussels, so reports the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Bulletin.

“During its January meeting the Nation Power and Conservation Council [NPCC] tasked the IEAB with analyzing potential economic effects of a quagga or zebra mussel infestation of the Columbia River basin with a focus on the Federal Columbia River Power System and the NPCC’s fish and wildlife program.

The IEAB’s final report, which is due in June, should help the Council and other policy makers in the region better understand the potential damage and related costs of a mussel infestation as compared to the potential cost of preventative actions. Mann was in Boise to give the Council a progress report on the project.”

The Bulletin goes on to list some of the areas that could be impacted by a mussel infestation:

“The IEAB is gathering information on possible impacts to infrastructure within the Council’s sphere of influence, including any submerged components and conduits of the FCRPS, including juvenile and adult fish passage and monitoring facilities, navigation locks, hydropower facilities, raw water distribution systems for hatcheries, turbine cooling, and water supply; trash racks, diffuser gratings, and drains.

Non-FCRPS [Federal Columbia River Power System] irrigation, municipal water supply and other infrastructure could also be affected, and a mussel invasion also has the potential to collapse the existing food chain.

There are no known zebra or quagga infestations in the Pacific Northwest but they seem to be moving closer and closer. The invasive mussels were found in January 2007 in Lake Mead in the Southwest and since then quagga or zebra mussels have been found in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Texas and Utah.”

In the Columbia system, however, there are still plenty of questions about whether the organisms can survive in our low calcium waters or under different types of stream conditions.  The results of a study in the Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment published on-line in by OSU’s Thom Whittier and others shows that these European mussels don’t thrive unless waters are still and calcium levels are high.  Many of the streams and lakes of Western Oregon and Washington are therefore, probably low risk in terms of infestation. But uncertainties remain, as they did in the Colorado River system before the mussels arrived there and proliferated, despite some of the indications otherwise.

Image courtesy of Thom Whittier, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

What have these organisms cost other, comparable areas?  In the Great Lakes area–the location with the longest history of infestation, mussels have cost the power industry about $3.1 billion between 1993 and 1999 according to Congressional researchers. Overall community impacts totaled at least $5 billion according to the Quagga-Zebra Mussel Action Plan for Western U.S. Waters.

The point of this is that for quagga and zebra mussels, as well any other aquatic invader, risk–biological, physical and economic–needs to be determined to better prepare for invasions.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.  If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.  If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. — Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”

They’re Here…(Coho return)

It’s enough to make a biologist, bear, or fisherman shake with anticipation!  Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife   just posted this video to the web (with thanks Michelle Long for spreading this around). The minute and a half long video is worth viewing for the momentary interlude it provides as well as to remind ourselves that the cycle of life continues for these amazing fish in our beautiful rivers. Enjoy!

“When you feel neglected, think of the female salmon, who lays 3,000,000 eggs but no one remembers her on Mother’s Day.”  –Sam Erwing

Local Watershed Councils Work to Restore Salmon to the North Coast While Preserving Local Economy

While Oregon may be nick-named ‘the Beaver State,’ one of the best-know icons of our state’s wildlife heritage is the anadromous (ocean-going) salmon. Today, the Oregon Coast’s salmon numbers are roughly seven percent of what they once were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This decline is the result of many decades of human activities on the land and in the ocean as well as globally changing conditions for these important fish. Urbanization, fishing, logging, farming, and dam operations are examples of activities that have altered salmon populations by changing their habitat, reducing fish numbers, or affecting water quality. Salmon population declines have caused the majority of Oregon’s salmon species to be protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.

salmonids_for_web.jpgIn 1997, a diverse group of stakeholders from all sectors, the Oregon Legislature, and then-Governor John Kitzhaber established the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds. The Oregon Plan was formed because Oregonians believed that the state should devise its own home-grown response to salmon declines rather than wait for federal instruction and oversight. The plan created a relatively small state agency called the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) with a mandate to provide grants to locally-run, volunteer watershed restoration efforts. These OWEB grants come from a combination of Oregon Lottery and salmon license plate proceeds. According to OWEB, every dollar the state invests in watershed projects is usually matched by at least $1.50 of private, federal, and local government funds.

One of the unique features of the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds is that its implementation is not in the hands of a large state bureaucracy, but rests instead with local groups called watershed councils. Much of the Oregon Plan work is carried out by these councils. Watershed councils are locally organized, voluntary, non-regulatory groups established to improve the condition of watersheds in their area. The council provides local people a voice that can significantly influence watershed management decisions. Watershed councils can also help new residents understand and get involved in natural resources and land management issues in their area.

The formation of a watershed council is a local government decision. The councils work within their watersheds and with multiple stakeholders to address watershed health in a holistic manner. A typical council is a forum that brings local, state, and federal land management agencies together with local property owners and private land managers. Most watershed councils have a staff of one or more employees that serve to coordinate its efforts.

Watershed councils work with private landowners and a host of other partners to do voluntary projects that improve water quality and fish and wildlife habitat while maintaining the productivity of the land. Planting streamside trees and shrubs, reducing erosion and runoff, installing streamside fencing, replacing fish-blocking culverts, removing invasive vegetation, and restoring wetlands are just a few examples of projects that private landowners undertake with the help of watershed councils. Tillamook County hosts the Upper Nehalem, Lower Nehalem, Tillamook Bay, and Nestucca/Neskowin watershed councils.

Formed in 1998, the Tillamook Bay Watershed Council is the largest of these, working within drainages of the five rivers that enter the Tillamook Bay. Council members are the heart and soul of the organization. They provide vision for on-the-ground projects and outreach activities and take a hands-on interest in the organization by volunteering their time and effort on projects. Members are leaders in the community and are involved in other civic organizations. Main interest groups that are present in the watershed and are represented on the Tillamook Bay Watershed Council include Oregon Department of Forestry, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership, Tillamook County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Tillamook County Creamery Association (representing the dairy industry), the oyster industry, charter fishing, small municipalities, small business, Tillamook County, Central Coast Land Conservancy, as well as local residents and landowners representing the five rivers of the Tillamook Bay Watershed.

Recent years have witnessed reductions in returning coho and Chinook on the Oregon Coast. While unfavorable ocean conditions may have contributed to the plunge in populations, they also highlight the continued need for habitat restoration in the North Coast watersheds where salmon breed and live for a significant period of their lives. Along with previous or on-going work in the Miami, Wilson, Trask and Kilchis watersheds, the Tillamook Bay Watershed Council is developing a restoration plan for the Tillamook River basin. Potential salmon habitat improvement projects might include riparian plantings for shade or culvert upgrades for passage.

Before getting started, however, the council will need to understand more about what limits salmon survival in the basin. The council and its partners will examine existing scientific data gathered over the past few years, as well as completing their own study of the Tillamook and its major tributaries (Fawcett, Munson, Mills, Bewley, Sutton, Joe, Beaver, Esther, Tomlinson, Simmons, and Killam creeks). The information gathered by the council will help it to suggest the best voluntary activities that may maintain or restore salmon habitat while supporting the values of landowners in the watershed.

The success of this project is largely dependent on the support of landowners within the Tillamook River basin. The council will collect data during May and June and will need many of the landowners along the Tillamook or its major tributaries to allow passage through their section of stream. The council and its partners (which include OSU Extension Service – Tillamook County) will be contacting landowners by phone or in person. If Tillamook River basin landowners have an interest in pursuing restoration work on their property, this project is an excellent opportunity to do so. For more information or to get involved with the Tillamook Bay Watershed Council, you can contact the council director, Denise Lofman at (503) 322-0002.

Catchup on Chinook, Climate Change, World Water Day

It’s been a little while since I’ve had time to post to H2ONC. So here’s a quick update on a few newsworthy items that North Coaster’s and other readers should pay attention to:

Due to an amazingly sharp drop off in returning fish, the Sacramento Chinook salmon fishery has been closed from fishing, essentially closing down fishing from Cape Falcon (south of Manzanita) to the San Francisco Bay Area. This is exceptionally bad news for North Coast fishermen and the communities that depend upon the roughly $15 million fishery. Senator Wyden (D-OR) is working to get a salmon disaster declared quickly so that funds are disbursed in 2008, rather than two years later with the last fishery disaster. A full news article on the closure and the fishery collapse can be found at the NY Times here and at the San Francisco Chronicle here.

Couple of other important articles that have crossed my desk in recent weeks includes a report from the National Academies of Science on climate change impacts to coastal transportation. This topic should resonate with many here as the December Storm damaged a critical rail line and made roads rough-going for more than a few weeks in the aftermath. The shorter news on this topic can be found at the New York Times here.

Lastly, World Water Day was last Friday, March 21st. While there are a plethora of “days” out there for people to commemorate everything from battles to personal causes, this one remains important–though barely audible over the drone of the news cycle and the patter of everyday life (even mine, I admit). Below is an excerpt from the National Academies of Science press release on the event. It neatly underscores why water is so critical and why World Water Day is not “just another day.”

“Today 2.6 billion people, including almost 1 billion children, live without basic sanitation. Every 20 seconds, a child dies as a result of poor sanitation, leading to 1.5 million preventable deaths each year.

The theme of this year’s World Water Day is sanitation. Organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, activities will take place around the world to raise awareness and accelerate progress toward reducing the number of people without sanitation by half over the next seven years.

The United Nations estimates it will cost $10 billion annually to halve the proportion of people without basic sanitation by 2015. If sustained, the same investment could achieve basic sanitation for the entire world within one or two decades.”

Coastal Coho Re-Listed

Coastal coho salmon are what the state of Oregon and federal government call “an evolutionary significant unit” (ESU). The current status of the coastal coho ESU reflects a reduction in fishery harvest, improved hatchery management, and extensive habitat restoration work under the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds.

As recently as 2006, despite a historical plunge in numbers of fish returning to spawn in Oregon coastal streams, state and federal biologists concluded that the numbers of fish were on the upswing such that the species could be taken from the list of threatened and endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).

As an outcome of a lawsuit by Trout Unlimited and others, a Federal court ordered that NOAA Marine Fisheries Service must re-list the fish. This has some important implications for North Coast watershed councils, land managers and others, although some of our salmon runs are already ESA-listed.  You can read an article on this topic in the Oregonian by clicking here.

Important points about the coastal coho verses other species of salmon:

1. Coho use low-gradient streams for spawning.
2. Estuaries and wetlands are important for coho survival over it’s lifecycle.
3. Coho can be hatchery reared, though the survival rate of hatchery fish is often lower than wild ones.

Another blow for the great hatchery experiment

salmonids_for_web.jpgFor folks in the salmonid recovery efforts (i.e., those focused on salmon and trout), hatcheries are a very hot topic. A press release by Oregon State University explains the latest blow to the experiment that began over a century ago with the development of hatchery-based fish-rearing. The controversy thus far has centered around the counting of hatchery-reared fish along with returning wild stocks. As you will see below, the research by biologist Michael Blouin and others adds some real complexity to this controversy. Note you can go the source by clicking here.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The rearing of steelhead trout in hatcheries causes a dramatic and unexpectedly fast drop in their ability to reproduce in the wild, a new Oregon State University study shows, and raises serious questions about the wisdom of historic hatchery practices.

The research, to be published Friday in the journal Science, demonstrates for the first time that the reproductive success of steelhead trout, an important salmonid species, can drop by close to 40 percent per captive-reared generation. The study reflects data from experiments in Oregon’s Hood River.

“For fish to so quickly lose their ability to reproduce is stunning, it’s just remarkable,” said Michael Blouin, an OSU associate professor of zoology. “We were not surprised at the type of effect but at the speed. We thought it would be more gradual. If it weren’t our own data I would have difficulty believing the results.”

Fish reared in a hatchery for two generations had around half the reproductive fitness of fish reared for a single generation. The effects appear to be genetic, scientists said, and probably result from evolutionary pressures that quickly select for characteristics that are favored in the safe, placid world of the hatchery, but not in the comparatively hostile natural environment.

“Among other things, this study proves with no doubt that wild fish and hatchery fish are not the same, despite their appearances,” said Michael Blouin, an OSU associate professor of zoology. “Some have suggested that hatchery and wild fish are equivalent, but these data really put the final nail in the coffin of that argument.”

Even a few generations of domestication may have significant negative effects, and repeated use of captive-reared parents to supplement wild populations “should be carefully reconsidered,” the scientists said in their report.

Traditionally, salmon and steelhead hatcheries obtained their brood stock and eggs from fish that were repeatedly bred in hatcheries – they tended to be more docile, adapted well to surface feeding, and they thrived and survived at an 85-95 percent level in the safe hatchery environment.

More recently, some “supplementation” hatchery operations have moved to the use of wild fish for their brood stock, on the theory that their offspring would retain more ability to survive and reproduce in the wild, and perhaps help rebuild threatened populations.

“What happens to wild populations when they interbreed with hatchery fish still remains an open question,” Blouin said. “But there is good reason to be worried.”

Earlier work by researchers from OSU and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife had suggested that first-generation hatchery fish from wild brood stock probably were not a concern, and indeed could provide a short-term boost to a wild population. But the newest findings call even that conclusion into question, he said.

“The problem is in the second and subsequent generations,” Blouin said. “There is now no question that using fish of hatchery ancestry to produce more hatchery fish quickly results in stocks that perform poorly in nature.”

Evolution can rapidly select for fish of certain types, experts say, because of the huge numbers of eggs and smolts produced and the relatively few fish that survive to adulthood. About 10,000 eggs can eventually turn into fewer than 100 adults, Blouin said, and these are genetically selected for whatever characteristics favored their survival. Offspring that inherit traits favored in hatchery fish can be at a serious disadvantage in the wild where they face risks such as an uncertain food supply and many predators.

Because of the intense pressures of natural selection, Blouin said, salmon and steelhead populations would probably quickly revert to their natural state once hatchery fish were removed.

However, just removing hatchery fish may not ensure the survival of wild populations. Studies such as this consider only the genetic background of fish and the effects of hatchery selection on those genetics, and not other issues that may also affect salmon or steelhead fisheries, such as pollution, stream degradation or climate change.

Blouin cautioned that these data should not be used as an indictment of all hatchery programs.

“Hatcheries can have a place in fisheries management,” he said. “The key issue is how to minimize their impacts on wild populations.”

This research was conducted through use of 15 years of DNA tracking technology of fish breeding in Hood River, a mountain stream that flows northward off Mount Hood into the Columbia River. DNA analysis with scales was done with about 15,000 fish since 1991.

This research has been supported by the Bonneville Power Administration and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.