SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2002

SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2002

A Tale of Fast Flows
and Spongy Fish

by Lisa Bland
Driving the muddy logging roads between September and December you might happen upon a bunch of people dressed in funny suits looking like they just landed from Mars or stepped from the pages of a superhero comic. Dressed in colourful spongy suits with mask and breathing apparatus, they are clearly out of their element. When you enquire as to what they’re doing on a chilly fall day, they enthusiastially tell you they are off to snorkel the river and count fish! O…kay, but why?

Snorkeling rivers on Haida Gwaii is a method to count coho in the Area Under the Curve or the AUC Program. It is a way to estimate salmon escapement and has been developed and refined over the past 20 years. These surveys are used to obtain daily estimates of adult coho in representative “index” sites on selected rivers throughout the Islands. From September to December when the fish are finishing their journey up the rivers to spawn, these sites are snorkeled, the coho counted and plotted on a graph. The graphs generate a curve showing the number of salmon present in the river over time, or a “spawner abundance curve.”

As coho live for quite awhile once they enter the river, the same fish are often counted 2 or 3 times, so to come up with a better estimate, the length that fish live must also be factored in. This is done by capturing and tagging silver coho when theyfirst enter the river in the lower reaches and then recording the number of tagged fish seen in subsequent site counts. By combining the “residence time” of the coho with the area under the spawner abundance curve, or “area under the curve,” an estimate of how many fish actually spawned in that system over the season is generated.

“An accurate estimation of coho is a major issue and a big problem in stock assessment,” says Peter Katinic, Program Biologist for Haida Fisheries. When attempting to forecast and monitor stocks various methods are used; to date the most effective of all has been swimming the streams and counting the fish.

Chum and pink salmon can be counted easily by walking the creeks, as they are out in the open water on the lower reaches, but coho are elusive and the only method for getting good numbers other than using AUC methods is with counting fences. The fences work well on certain rivers, but are labour intensive and very costly. Charter patrolmen, who walk the banks of the streams count chum and pink salmon for DFO fisheries management, but these numbers provide only a rough index of coho abundance and distribution. Coho move into the uppermost reaches of river systems, and are not easy to spot from the banks.

The AUC method is considered the most cost effective. In AUC snorkel counts, mainstem and tributary sites are sampled consistently, and the entire length of each river from its uppermost fish barrier to the mouth is counted twice each season. Although the AUC numbers are too late for fisheries management in the same year, they are good indicators of whether coho populations are increasing or decreasing over time, and provide consistent sampling of sites using a standardized methodology .The Haida Fisheries Program administers the AUC program in cooperation with partners. Working with Hecate Strait and North Graham Island Streamkeepers, a collaboration of resources and talent have combined and proven positive both technically and politically. “There is no way that one group could have pulled this off. The cooperation, dedication and availability of everyone has made this program a success,” says Mr. Katinic. AUC employs seven Haida Fisheries workers from Massett and Skidegate, three Hecate Strait Streamkeepers and two North Graham Island Streamkeepers.

Over the years, funding sources for the AUC program have included Habitat Restoration Salmon Enhancement Program (HRSEP), and Fisheries Renewal BC, and in 2001 the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Stock Assessment Program provided additional funds. AUC has been used by the Haida Fisheries Program on the Deena river since 1995, and the program has grown since then to include Mercer, Riley, and Hangover(a tributary to Bonanza creek) creeks on the West Coast, Deena and Lagins creeks in Skidegate Inlet, and McClinton and Datlamen creeks in Masset Inlet. There is some question as to whether the program will continue at its present scale, as Fisheries Renewal funding has been drastically cut.

While the process of generating graphs and estimating the number of coho is a technical exercise, snorkeling surveys are about as “in the field” as it gets. Snorkelers see the river from the perspective of a fish (granted a very strange sort of fish in a spongy suit floating on top with a breathing tube). This aquatic habitat is full of secrets, dimensions unknown from the surface which reflects only the sky and trees. Under water a world is revealed teeming with life. You can see a school of forty adult coho entwined in the dark recesses of the roots of a tree, or a pair of spawners wedged deep under a cutbank, motionless as the arc of the flashlight beam illuminates them. Adult coho are reclusive by nature and cram themselves into the darkest, most inconspicuous places while they wait for the moment to spawn or for higher water levels so they can move into the upper reaches of the river. Coho fry often swim right up your mask and stay there allowing you to get a good look and marvel at their ability to find a resting place away from high river flows. Schools of Dolly Varden trout are seen frequently moving up and down river with the current, their fuschia spawning colors dazzle the eye and occasionally a steelhead darts past, flashing silver. There are other clues to the creatures that share this dynamic habitat. We often see bear tracks in the river bed and their claw marks in the soft clay mud of the river banks and a few times we’ve seen bear tracks underwater. Feathers and deer antlers show up in debris traps and stagnant pools and the odd fish hook is snagged in some of the more popular fishing holes.

There are numerous benefits to swimming the streams and developing an intimate relationship with the habitat. Watching the dynamics of pool, riffle, and glide; the interrelationship between old growth forests, riparian habitat, and high water conditions; and the fish that inhabit these complex changing systems are all learning situations. The physics of water flow and its action on boulders, rootwads, and logs is a lesson in the dynamic relationship of stream and forest. And into the swirling water, we, in bright spongy suits launch ourselves.

Snorkeling the streams is about “in the field” as you can get. Snorklers hook legs for stability and float quietly attempting to count the elusive coho.

Swimming these streams is an art in itself. For one thing, you have to learn to maneuver in strong currents with a flashlight in your hand. Often you can hook your feet around a log or stick and hang there to count fish, but sometimes the water spins you around and suddenly you’re facing the wrong direction. Seeing coho can be tricky. In higher water the fish tend to be in deeper pools in the main flow, but in lower water, they tuck themselves into cutbanks or small inconspicuous holes. Two swimmers cover the area most effectively, as each person can spot different groups of fish. Some of the rivers are so wide, like the Deena and Riley that each swimmer picks a bank and ideally another person walking the bank scans ahead for fish that have spooked down stream. Coho generally prefer not to head downstream, but if you agitate them too much they will bolt past you and leave you with the task of subtracting them from your total count. After swimming a section, the snorkellers consult with each other on their estimates, and the bank walker keeps a running tally.

Fall is a rich time of year on the river, and especially abundant in the year that pink salmon return. Eggs are strewn everywhere, rotting carcasses and fish milt sacs lay up and down the banks. It’s a smelly and bizarre time to be swimming. Grotesque rotting pinks and chum in various stages of decomposition are draped across logs and forced into rootwads by the water. Once I saw ten fish hanging a few feet above the water level, left there after the flooding.

Stepping on fish, coming face to face with the bodies rich with fungus, accidentally setting your hands into their bodies while climbing out of the river, and then worrying you have swallowed some of the stinking water with bits of decomposed salmon suspended in it are all part of the snorkeling experience. Snorkeling when the bears are feeding is unnerving. Every few feet half eaten fish carcasses and bear scat litter the banks. You can feel the bears watching you as you make your way along the river. A few times we have tried to swim sites with a bear fifty metres away and obviously not very interested in moving. Most times two people waving their arms is enough to move the bear on, but occasionally they stay put and we are forced to abandon the site and find a way around them. Luckily the bears are mainly interested in filling up on salmon, still there are times when you wonder when you’re going to step over a log and land in a bears lap, or snorkel right into a big pair of fuzzy claws. One morning we arrived at our work site to find that the foam seats of our quads had been torn apart and eaten! Ribbons leading to the site that were hung on trees a week before were torn off and lay in shreds on the ground. We could see claw marks the length of some alders where they had scraped the ribbons off. It is no wonder as some of the bear trails have been there for centuries. We feel honored to use them, even if at times we don’t quite feel welcome. And then a few weeks later all the activity is over, the pink and chum have decomposed and the coho have begun their migration up river. It’s now much quieter on the river.

Working under the water you gain a new perspective and appreciation of an old-growth stream. Many of the systems we swim have been partially logged with varying amounts of forest along the banks. In some cases the rivers have been logged right to the bank and in many of these systems, the effects of logging show by the lack of gravel, cobble, and stable wood in the stream. Large sections of the river become braided and go underground, gravel bars are unstable, and much of the habitat is washing away as banks erode. As a snorkeller, the challenges of working in these areas are numerous - blowdown and nightmarish debris block the way, massive log jams must be climbed over and under continuously. “Its a hellzone on your suit ,” says Kevin Koch of Hecate Strait Streamkeepers. In high water conditions, it takes a lot of balance to make it through these areas without puncturing your suit or landing on a sharp stick. But in old growth sections relief is tangibly felt — the channel becomes singular and the water is clearer, the river is slower with deeper pools, and logs and rootwads are spaced out creating more hiding spots for fish. On the whole snorkeling and walking the banks in old growth sections is more enjoyable and much less hazardous.

The value of the AUC program is not only in the numbers it generates to measure coho escapement, but also in its ability to insist that we, the workers, develop a relationship with the land and just by the simple act of being in the weather, the water and among the life along the river we are invigorated. The work is also practical as we are able to count the fish, monitor the habitat and see changes on the river from year to year. This increase of awareness leads to a deeper understanding of our environment, to each other and extends beyond the enjoyment of the work crew into the larger community as we share our knowledge and excitement for the rivers. •

SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2002