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Biologists search for salmon, dead or alive

By ALEX PAJUNAS

Of The Daily Astorian

ASTORIA — Fighting against the current, salmon scramble across moss-coated rocks and hop over slippery logs. They can't be bothered by the bald eagles, blue herons, elk, river otters and occasional mink that cross their paths.

Returning to the same rivers and creeks every 10 days, these field biologists with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife race against the short days of fall and winter trying to cover as much ground as possible in search of salmon — dead or alive.

Scott Kirby, a Cannon Beach resident and 12-year ODFW employee, has worked as ODFW's North Coast monitoring crew leader since 2010 gathering information for the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds. He organizes ODFW field biologists to conduct spawning surveys for coho as well as supplemental and standard surveys for chinook and chum salmon on waterways west of the Coast Range stretching from the Necanicum River near Seaside to the southern end of Tillamook County at Neskowin Creek.

Equipped with studded, felt-soled boots, chest waders, a gaff hook and machete, crews often blaze their own trails while observing coastal waterways through polarized glasses that help cut down on the glare and see what lies below the surface.

By using a hand-held PDA (personal digital assistant), crews tally up the number of live salmon, by species and sex, spotted on an assigned survey. When they find a carcass to process, a measurement is taken of the fish from the middle of the eye to the posterior scale at the base of the tail. Scale samples are taken to determine the age of the fish, when it entered the ocean and when it returned to freshwater. Snouts are removed from hatchery fish in order to collect the Passive Integrated Transponder, or PIT tag, that identifies where the fish was raised. Finally the tail is removed to ensure that it will not be recounted during the next survey.

Between September and January, Kirby's crews bushwhack and wade through 66 miles of North Coast streams selected for gathering a count of both live fish and carcasses of hatchery and wild salmon.

“There is a random selection (of stream locations) that occurs and then these surveys are equally distributed throughout the different basins,” said Kirby of the system used by Oregon Adult Salmon Inventory and Sampling (OASIS) in Corvallis to make a coho population estimate for an area encompassing 1,100 miles of waterways. “They add up (the data) and generate an estimate for the whole coast each year of the salmon that return.”

And the estimates are indicating that coho numbers are improving since the 1990s when the fish was on its way to being listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Oregon's coastal wild coho salmon populations are doing much better now than they were in the early 1990s,” said Mark Lewis, who works out of the Corvallis Research Lab as the OASIS program manager. “We have learned a great deal about how many wild salmon there are in Oregon's coastal basins, where the wild salmon are and when they are there.”

The reason for the improved understanding of salmon life history and the relationships between adult and juvenile salmon and their habitats stems from the creation of the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds in 1997.

The plan's mission statement calls for “restoring our native fish populations and the aquatic systems that support them to productive and sustainable levels that will provide substantial environmental, cultural and economic benefits.”

Using an approach that relies on stewardship and volunteerism instead of regulation, the plan calls for improvements to water quality and habitat restoration, In addition, monitoring efforts by crews like Kirby's from around the state provide data for research groups like OASIS to help aid future decisions and actions.

“Each year, results of our Oregon Plan Monitoring are used to review the success of the prior year's coho fisheries management and to forecast and set seasons for the following year,” Lewis said. “The results from our Oregon Plan Monitoring were used as part of the development and monitoring of the recent freshwater fisheries for wild coho in some Oregon coastal rivers.”

Much like the journey of the spawning fish they are pursuing, the survey work is never easy.

“Although wood is great for stream enhancement for fish, its not so much fun for us surveyors,” said Jaime Craig, a field biologist with the ODFW from Bay City. “We want to see wood in stream because that means we have much happier fish and better rearing. But for us, when logs are iced over and we are trying to jump over logs . you know they're slick. That's when the physical part comes into it and you have to watch your step.”

In addition to scrambling across 20 to 30 miles of physically exhausting terrain, field biologists face the challenge of winter storms that can “blow out” creeks, making water levels too high to walk through and too turbid to spot any fish.

When a coho salmon reaches its spawning ground, it will live on average for only 10 to 11 more days. As a result each survey must be repeated every 10 days.

“(It can be challenging) maintaining that rotation and getting each site surveyed once a week with all the weather we have,” Kirby said.

Despite the cold, wind, rain and countless geographic obstacles, the crews doing the work that stretches from dawn to dusk find it has plenty of rewards.

Amanda Reich, a field biologist with ODFW from Tillamook, enjoys the opportunity to see some of the back roads and hidden things tucked away in the remote areas of Tillamook and Clatsop counties.

“Sometimes you see really huge cedars when you go way out back in the woods and find waterfalls that are really cool,” said Reich.

She recently did a survey on East Foley Creek, a Nehalem River tributary east of Wheeler, and counted more than 400 chum salmon.

“You never know what you are going to run into from day to day as far as fish, people or weather,” said Craig. “Everything is always changing.”

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