November 15, 2023
As the family prepares to head over the river and through the woods, there’s a banquet of fly-fishing news for your pre-holiday consumption in the latest edition of Fly Fisherman News Briefs.
Emergency Efforts to Save Cali Chinooks
Earlier this year, numbers of California spring-run Chinook salmon took a massive nosedive in what biologists have called a "cohort collapse."
But biologists are working to turn the situation by capturing juvenile fish from Mill, Deer and Butte creeks in an effort to start a conservation hatchery program that will look to safeguard the genetic heritage of the species, according to a California Department of Fish and Wildlife news release.
That news release notes that the University of California Davis will house the captive broodstock at the school’s Center for Aquatic Biology and Aquaculture (CABA) for the next two years until a longer-term facility is identified.
What will that do? CDFW scientists hope to use such measures to maintain the genetic diversity of the species through the hatchery broodstock program. And as instream flow requirements and habitat restoration efforts improve the odds of the fishes’ survival in the wild, biologists may be able to use hatchery offspring to restore genetically diverse and locally adapted populations of spring-run Chinook.
The need for such measures came when Mill and Deer creeks—two of the three streams that CDFW say hold the remaining independent spring-run populations in the state—each saw fewer than 25 returning adults this past spring. Also worrisome were returns to Butte Creek—the third independent population according to CDFW—marking the lowest figure since 1991, and also where adult spring-run Chinooks suffered further negative impacts thanks to a canal failure in the watershed.
All of that led biologists with CDFW and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to pursue a variety of urgent measures this fall in an effort to save some of the last remaining spring-run Chinook salmon in the state's Central Valley as numbers push towards potential extinction-like levels.
CDFW officials say that Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon typically follow a 3- or 4-year life cycle, and that often provides some buffer against catastrophic return events that happen in a single year. Still, while other year-classes (or cohorts, as biologists refer to them) will return in coming years, CDFW biologists note that the drought from 2019-2022 certainly impacted multiple cohorts, and has increased risks for extinction-level loss.
CDFW biologists also report that the remaining populations of spring-run Chinook are declining more than 10% each year. In fact, while one population of spring-run Chinooks initially benefited from strong adult returns in 2021, more than 90% of the fish died prior to spawning when high stream temperatures exacerbated by thiamine deficiency and wildfires fueled a disease outbreak that same year.
“These drastically low returns come at a time when we’ve already been taking extreme measures to protect salmon strongholds and eliminate existing barriers keeping them from their historic habitat,” said CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham. “We’ve got to continue to do everything we can to preserve these iconic fish.”
Thermal Refuges Sought by Biologists Looking to Aid Florida Stripers
While Florida will never be confused with coastal New England when the topic turns to striped bass, the Sunshine State is actually a key spot for Gulf Coast restoration efforts. That's especially true at Lake Talquin in the panhandle and the tailrace below Jackson Bluff Dam, the primary spot where adult striped bass are collected each year for spawning efforts in state and federal fish hatcheries.
Unfortunately, larger stripers are becoming increasingly difficult to find there since the system offers only marginal summertime habitat for adult stripers along with high levels of natural mortality as the mid-year heat keeps the larger and older fish in stressful settings.
To try to increase adult stripers' survival rates, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists are looking to thermal refuge spots in the form of creeks and springs flowing into mainstem rivers and lakes.
Thanks to a project that seeks to locate important thermal refuge areas in Lake Talquin, such areas could potentially benefit from habitat restoration efforts. Several spots have been identified that were previously unknown, and conserving and potentially enhancing flows of creeks and springs that aid adult striped bass survival in the summer months could help improve survival and bring more adult fish into the population.
"We track fish using radio tags and follow their movements every week,” said Stephen Stang, a freshwater fisheries biologist with FWC’s Division of Freshwater Fisheries Management, in a news release about the effort in Lake Talquin and the lower Ochlocknee River. “Once we locate a fish, we drop a temperature probe in the water to determine the temperature of their habitat and monitor their survival in a particular area. Where we locate these fish in the summer, the water temperature is typically 10-15 degrees cooler than the main part of the lake. We let the fish guide us to the most optimal areas like a 'cool-seeking missile.'”
Idaho Monitors Snake River for Treatment-Induced Fish Kills
In response to chelated copper treatment of the Snake River in response to the recent discovery of invasive quagga mussels, officials with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) and the Idaho State Department of Agriculture are monitoring the famed water for potential fish mortality. The treatment was limited to a short section around Twin Falls.
At last report, biologists have found ten sturgeon succumbing to the treatment, all of those being found at depths of two to six feet. IDFG officials note that these sturgeon were all hatchery-reared and stocked fish, typical of the sturgeon found in that stretch of the Snake River. Also, biologists continue to collect other fish and examine biological data, most of the several hundred collected thus far being things like largescale suckers, common carp, northern pike minnows, and yellow perch.
An IDFG news release indicates that the continuing monitoring efforts were made necessary when quagga mussel larva were found in the Snake River near Twin Falls on Sept. 18. After that routine monitoring detection, officials identified chelated copper as the appropriate treatment for a six-mile stretch of the river with those treatments beginning on Oct. 3.
Grand Canyon Smallmouth Battle
In New England, the Great Lakes, the upper Midwest and the Ozark streams of Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, fly anglers celebrate smallmouth bass. Not so much in the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam.
In fact, officials are trying to ensure that the species doesn't infiltrate downstream waters in the Grand Canyon and wipe out several native species, most notably the federally threatened humpback chub, along with other threatened native species like the Colorado pikeminnow, the razorback sucker and the bonytail.
A growing smallmouth invasion has recently come to light due to the dewatered Lake Powell, where a report in High Country News indicates that the smalljaws arrived in 1982 when 500 "extra" smallmouths were dumped into the reservoir by a hatchery manager.
Since then, anglers have caught millions of smallmouth in the reservoir a few hundred miles east-northeast of Las Vegas, which is shrinking due to ongoing drought. And it's that drought that is allowing smallmouths—which for years have stayed in the reservoir’s upper levels where the water is warmer—to get deep enough for the first time to pass through Glen Canyon Dam into the Colorado River below.
As biologists attempt to ensure that smallmouth don’t get below the well-known Lee’s Ferry tailwater stretch of the river, how will the problem be remedied? There aren't any easy answers and the situation and any potential solution is complex and highly political. But biologists are examining several possibilities to stem the tide of the smallmouth invasion.
That includes netting off a backwater slough where smallmouths were first discovered downstream of Glen Canyon Dam. So far, that has led to the removal of 667 smallmouth bass.
And to prevent the smalljaws from getting downstream further and into territory vital to some of the threatened species noted above, more drastic measures may be necessary going forward, measures that could include things like high-intensity cold-water flow spikes that would prevent smallmouth reproduction.
Closure Allows for Dam Removal on Colorado's Arkansas River
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Officials have closed a short stretch of the Arkansas River to allow for the removal of a low-head dam some 1.5 miles upstream from the Mount Shavano State Fish Hatchery.
The six-week closure, which started on Oct. 23, is in place from the Chaffee County Road 166 Bridge to the Salida Boat Ramp. That will allow for the removal of the dam, first built in 1956 and then rebuilt in 1988, in an original effort designed to collect cold water for the hatchery.
That hasn’t been necessary for years and CPW officials now say that the dam removal effort will benefit the Centennial State's famed Gold Medal trout stream, including brown trout and rainbows, along with native white suckers. That will come thanks to opening up approximately 85 miles of the river upstream of the dam to fish migration.
With dams limiting genetic diversity, the population of the Arkansas has been essentially divided into two segments over the years and now, the coming ability of fish in the river to move about freely should prevent overpopulation and allow for balancing the amount of habitat and forage that the river can support. The move will also eliminate a deadly trap on the river that threatens users of the Arkansas River each year when water spilling over the dam creates a powerful suction there that can capsize drift boats and trap river users.
“Removing this low-head dam will eliminate a significant safety concern for instream recreationists and will re-establish critical connectivity for aquatic species in the Arkansas River,” said April Estep, deputy regional manager of CPW’s Southeast Region, in a news release. “CPW is excited to complete this important project and grateful to our partners, including the Chaffee County Board of County Commissioners, which provided $100,000 toward the $1.1 million removal effort.”
During the closure, which will last into December, signs at access points will provide instructions to users of the river. Updates can be found at the Salida-based Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) by calling (719) 539-7289.
North Carolina Fish Passage Facility Restores 1K Miles of Habitat
Thanks to work between Duke Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), upgrades to fish passage facilities at North Carolina hydropower dams are opening up some 1,000-miles of spawning habitat.
According to an NOAA news release, this includes the Pee Dee River that includes a unique eelway design that attracts American eels, moves them up 95 feet thanks to a custom-designed stainless steel enclosure, and brings them to a collection barrel where staff then trucks them to a secluded cove in a reservoir upstream of a dam.
That release is a gateway for the American eel into the 1,000 miles of newly reopened habitat thanks to the eelway, which became operation this past spring. Since March 2023, some 600 eels have now passed through the structure according to biologists.
Fish passage efforts are also underway for other species including the American shad, the blueback herring, and the striped bass. All of these species travel upstream to spawn each spring when high river flows are happening in North Carolina. Thanks to installed inflatable gates across the length of Blewett Falls Dam to control downstream flows, passage is now possible for downstream migrating fish.
Also noteworthy is that after monitoring movements of adult shad for the past eight years, officials knew where to build a trap and transport area to help them later move the fish upriver in the Blewett Falls tailrace near the powerhouse. Construction on this has been ongoing since 2021 and Duke Energy officials believe the facility will be done by fall of 2024. Following testing later next year, the hope is that the facility will be fully operational in 2025 and help American shad and blueback herring continue their upriver migration in the future.
Forest Conservation Plan to Benefit Oregon Salmon and Steelhead
Fishery officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have approved a new conservation framework plan that will improve habitat for threatened Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead in the region, by conserving about 30,000 acres of private forestland in northwestern Oregon over coming years.
Specifically, the habitat conservation plan addresses the Port Blakely US Forestry (a private logging company) forests in the Clackamas and Molalla basins. The company will continue to harvest timber under the 50-year permit while making improvements to the habitat that will benefit threatened species in those areas. NOAA officials indicated in a news release that the "...plans demonstrate that protected species can benefit from working lands that also contribute to the local economy."
NOAA indicates that the plan, among other things, includes Port Blakely decommissioning logging roads, removing barriers to fish passage on streams, and increasing the size of forested buffers along streams in the region. The company will also look to add large wood to streams to provide refuge for juvenile fish in addition to providing grants to local watershed councils (or other applicants) to carry out similar habitat improvement work in nearby areas.
It's a long-haul effort that takes advantage of some special flexibilities built into the Endangered Species Act, now celebrating its 50th anniversary.
“We are big believers in a collaborative approach to habitat protection, and NOAA’s partnership in this process was critical,” said Claudine Reynolds, Director of Wildlife and Environmental Policy at Port Blakely, in the news release. “This plan will allow us to continue to manage our forests to provide timber, while improving the outlook for the species, and offering a beautiful natural resource for our community.”
Salmon Vision Offers Hope for Fisheries Management
In British Columbia's important Central Coast region, fisheries managers are faced with a dilemma: They don't actually know how many salmon are returning to the region, at least not until fishing seasons are actually over.
But that lack of timely data doesn't mean that those same managers don't have to make decisions and even forecasts, based on modeled data from past years. That includes setting harvest targets for both commercial and recreational salmon fisheries, and even at times, emergency closures when things don't look very good.
"We need information on how many salmon are returning everywhere that we’re fishing for salmon,” said Dr. Will Atlas, a watershed scientist with the Wild Salmon Center (WSC), in a news release. “You can’t tell me with a straight face that you’re having a sustainable fishery if you don’t know how many fish you have coming back. And that’s a problem right around the Pacific Rim.”
This is why the launching of Salmon Vision, an effort that combines first-of-kind artificial intelligence with ancient fishing weir technology, was so noteworthy. With this unique marriage, the goal of Salmon Vision according to WSC officials "...is to enable real-time salmon population monitoring for First Nations fisheries managers and beyond."
To do that, the current pilot study is annotating more than 500,000 video frames captured at Indigenous-run fish counting weirs on the Kitwanga and Bear Rivers. So far, early assessments this fall show promising adeptness in tracking 12 different fish species passing through custom fish-counting boxes at the two weirs. Scores are in fact surpassing 80- and 90-percent accuracy rates for both sockeye and coho salmon, two of the principal fish species targeted by First Nations commercial and recreational fishers in Canada.
So far, so good on this unique combination of modern AI technology and ancient fish counting methods.
"We need to automate fish counting to make informed decisions while salmon are still running," said Atlas. "And underwater video technology can now help us literally see those salmon return to rivers. ”
Deadline for BIL Fish Passage Project Grants Soon
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021 provides $1 billion for fish passage projects over the next five years via the National Fish Passage Program, for which funding is in demand and time is running out. The deadline to send a Letter of Interest for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program is Friday, November 17.
The goal of the National Fish Passage Program is to improve fish habitat and populations by removing barriers that prevent fish from migrating upstream and downstream. These barriers can include dams, culverts, and other man-made structures.
Eligible projects for the National Fish Passage Program include:
- Removing or modifying dams and culverts
- Restoring natural stream channels
- Installing fish ladders and other passage structures
State agencies, non-profit organizations, tribal agencies, small businesses, individuals, and all other entities are welcome to apply.
Applicants are required to send a Letter of Interest to their regional coordinator by Friday.
For more information about the program, please visit grants.gov or fws.gov .
Lynn Burkhead is a Senior Digital Editor with Outdoor Sportsman Group.