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Progress for Montana's Big Hole River?

Plus Captains for Clean Water, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, a little-known steelhead run, Snake River smallies, and more in Fly Fisherman's News Briefs for December 16, 2023.

Progress for Montana's Big Hole River?

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality recently reported “moderate to high level of filamentous algae growth” in the Big Hole River in the summer of 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Upper Missouri Waterkeeper)

Acting on reports from guides, outfitters, and environmental non-profits, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) recently reported a “moderate to high level of filamentous algae growth” in the Big Hole River in the summer of 2023, which is likely a factor in the river’s struggling trout population.

“This type of algae can be undesirable for recreationalists floating the river and may impact aquatic life by reducing oxygen levels in the water,” a DEQ press release stated. “Sample results for macroinvertebrates and nutrients are still being analyzed, while ash free dry weight showed elevated levels related to recreation. Ash free dry weight is an assessment tool used to determine undesirable algae levels.  The data collected has not been reviewed for potential impacts to the fishery at this time.”

Algae in normal amounts can be beneficial for trout streams by increasing dissolved oxygen levels. But when a “bloom” occurs, the excess algae can block sunlight and actually decrease dissolved oxygen levels. And some forms of algae actually produce toxins that can kill trout, dogs, cows, and humans. Agricultural runoff is often cited as a contributing factor in algae blooms, due to fertilizer in the effluent.

According to the press release: “Previous analysis conducted by DEQ in 2003 resulted in multiple impairment listings in the Big Hole River watershed. An impairment listing means the river is not meeting standards for certain pollutants and requires developing a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). A TMDL determines how much of a pollutant a waterbody can take before it impacts water quality and identifies likely sources of pollution with recommendations to improve conditions. In 2009, two TMDL documents were released by DEQ and provided metals, sediment and water temperature targets for the Big Hole River.” 

“A healthy river needs balanced physical, chemical, and biological processes, and all three on the Big Hole River are sadly degraded,” said Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director of the Upper Missouri Waterkeeper said on the website. “In the face of climate change, trout population decline, and excessive nutrient pollution, we need to take decisive action with science-based solutions capable of restoring this world-class waterway.”

More research is needed to fully understand the issues facing the iconic trout stream, but data like this can play a crucial role in getting things back on track.

Stay tuned to flyfisherman.com for further updates to the Big Hole River, including:

Good News for the Big Hole’s Grayling?

Amidst a climate of concern and despair for the Big Hole River’s health, one new report states that the number of breeding Arctic grayling has risen slightly, since a so-called “Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances” (CCAA) was put in place for the population in 2006. Grayling are considered a candidate for Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections but have been left off, called “warranted but precluded” by species that are considered at greater risk.

Artwork of an Arctic grayling.
Grayling are considered a candidate for Endangered Species Act protections but have been left off, called “warranted but precluded.” (Photo courtesy of the Department of Commerce and Labor Bureau of Fisheries)

According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), a CCAA is: “a voluntary agreement that provides incentives for non-federal landowners to conserve candidate and other unlisted species likely to become candidates in the future. For the length of the agreement, landowners agree to undertake specific activities that address the identified threats to the target species.”

In exchange, participating landowners are exempt from the potentially more rigid conservation measures and regulations should the species eventually be listed on the ESA.

Though populations fluctuate, a High Country News article on the subject cites Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist Matt Jaeger as calling the program “unquestionably a success.”

“Genetic studies indicate that the population has enough diversity to remain viable for the long term, he said, a concern given the downward trend at the onset,” continued the article.

Recommended


This CCAA is another piece of the complicated puzzle to resurrect one of the West’s best trout fisheries.

Study: Snake River Smallies Suffering from Mercury Poisoning Due to Dams

A new study released in the Environmental Science & Technology scholarly journal revealed that smallmouth bass collected from a wide swath of the Snake River's reservoirs and tailwaters in Idaho had elevated levels of mercury.

“Harvestable bass frequently exceeded the EPA human health criterion 0.30 mg/kg ww in muscle, (97) in some habitats, with the percentage of fish exceeding this criterion approximately twice as high in reservoirs and tailraces compared to free-flowing reaches,” according to the study by James J. Willacker, Collin A. Eagles-Smith, James A. Chandler, Jesse Naymik, Ralph Myers, and David P. Krabbenhoft. “Specifically, we demonstrate that THg (mercury) concentrations in a popular sportfish are strongly influenced by impoundments, that among these impoundments, much of that influence is related to the stratification regimes of the reservoirs, and that these differences may have important implications for human and fish health. The latter is particularly relevant given the prevalence of numerous species of conservation and cultural concern within the reaches sampled.”

Hell's Canyon Dam on the Snake River.
The Hell's Canyon Dam, shown here, is one of several dams studied to determine mercury levels in the Snake River's smallmouth bass. (Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives/Tony Varilone)

In other words, Snake River dams concentrate mercury and the fish suffer. Generally, the larger the fish, the higher the level of mercury, and “stratified” reservoirs (meaning reservoirs with distinct temperature differences at different water depths, or layers) were the worst offenders. Stratification can impact water quality, aquatic habitats, and the distribution of nutrients and dissolved oxygen. In these cases, mercury gets concentrated at the lower depths and is released into the river below via bottom-draw dams.

“Among reservoirs, THg concentrations were highest in reservoirs with inconsistent stratification patterns, 47% higher than annually stratified, and 144% higher than unstratified reservoirs,” said the study’s abstract. “Fish THg concentrations in tailraces immediately downstream of stratified reservoirs were higher than those below unstratified (38–130%) or inconsistently stratified (32–79%) reservoirs.”

It’s one more reason that Snake River dams are bad for fish and fishing.

The study is available here. 

Eleven Angling Renews as a Gold-Level Sponsor of BTT

Eleven Angling, a leader in international destination fishing trips and expeditions, has renewed its support of Bonefish & Tarpon Trust’s conservation efforts as a Platinum Sponsor, increasing its support from the Gold Sponsor level.

“We are excited to continue our support of and elevate our commitment to Bonefish & Tarpon Trust,” said Cameron Davenport, Eleven Angling’s Global Angling Sales and Operations Manager. “The work that BTT does for bonefish, tarpon, and permit is critically important. By providing sound scientific research and supporting economic data, BTT enables communities, regions, and governments to advocate for and enact appropriate legislation. Eleven is proud to step from a Gold Partner to a Platinum Partner in support of BTT’s mission, which aligns with our mission as anglers to preserve our passion for generations to come.”

Eleven Angling designs custom-made fishing experiences that take anglers from fabled flats in the Bahamas and Florida to redfish-filled marshes in Louisiana, to glacier-carved river valleys in Iceland and Chile, to pristine streams and lakes in Colorado. 

“We thank Eleven Angling for its generous support and commitment to marine conservation,” said BTT President and CEO Jim McDuffie. “Eleven is active in habitat restoration and conservation, the removal of marine debris and plastics, and support of science-based strategies benefitting the fisheries we love.”

Restoring a Little-Known Idaho Steelhead Run

Two new videos released by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) show what is being done to revitalize a tributary to Idaho’s Clearwater River. The East Fork of the Potlatch River has been identified as a strong candidate for restoration to bolster suffering steelhead and salmon populations.

The Potlatch River dumps into the Clearwater, a major steelheading destination in the region, about 15 miles upstream of the mouth in Lewiston, Idaho.

“Historically, this used to be a very productive steelhead, and even salmon, stream,” Joe DuPont, IDFG Clearwater Region Fisheries Manager, says in the videos. “And the reason it was so productive is that you had this stream that meanders through these forested landscapes. And due to past logging and grazing practices, now you have a landscape where the stream is channelized as much of the wood has been removed. And instead of a nice meandering stream that goes through a shaded, timbered landscape, you have a straightened stream without a lot of streams and pools, and not much shade.”

The restoration projects are done on private land and involve several methods. To increase habitat complexity, whole downed trees are placed into river channels to create protection for the parr fish, rechannels water into several channels, and increases floodplain connectivity. The team also creates new riffles and side channels to diversify habitat.

Watch the videos here:

NFLer Wears His Support for Captains for Clean Water

As part of the National Football League’s (NFL) My Cause, My Cleats program, Las Vegas Raiders linebacker Luke Masterson has chosen to sport shoes with the Captains for Clean Water (CCW) logo.

“Growing up in Naples, fishing was basically my life,” Masterson said in a CCW website post. “Especially in high school, my buddies and I would go camping all the time on the beach, we would fish in Rookery Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands.”

The program is a “league-wide initiative that allows players to champion causes important to them with custom designed cleats,” according to the NFL campaign website. At the end of the game, the cleats are auctioned off to benefit the chosen cause.

According to the CCW article, Masterson used his bonus year of college eligibility due to the lost COVID season to get his Master’s degree in Sustainability, focusing much of his research on the water quality crisis in the Everglades.

“We took a lot of classes that were just general, environmental law and things like that,” he remembers. “But I did have the opportunity in a few of them to pick a topic to write about. And any time I had the chance to do that, I was looking at something with [Captains For Clean Water], something with Everglades restoration.”

Click here to support CCW. 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Luke Masterson (@lukasmasterson)

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Luke Masterson (@lukasmasterson)




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