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Study: Intensive, Long-Term Monitoring Key To Determining Effects Of Habitat Restoration
Posted on Friday, February 05, 2016 (PST)

Although billions of dollars have been invested in stream restoration projects to replace lost and degraded fish habitat across the United States since 1990, there is a lack of evidence that the projects have actually benefitted salmon and steelhead, according to a recent study published last week.


The authors of the study have an answer to this paucity of information: intensively monitored watersheds.


Some 17 watersheds throughout the Northwest, nine in the Columbia River basin, are already providing detailed and long-term insights into how investments in stream restoration – projects such as placing woody debris in streams or reconnecting habitat – are increasing smolt populations and adult returns.


“All IMWs are experiments that are trying to answer the basic question ‘is restoration of stream and estuary habitat working?’” said lead author Stephen Bennett, research scientist, Watershed Sciences Department, Utah State University in Logan, UT.


“By ‘working’ we mean is restoration resulting in an increase in salmon and steelhead productivity in freshwater habitats,” he said. “Although 100’s of millions of dollars have been spent restoring stream habitat in (the Pacific Northwest), we do not have much data to support that more fish are being created.”


"This (IMWs) is the best method we have for understanding if restoration improves watershed scale productivity, how well it works, and how we can get better at it," Bennett said.


According to information from NOAA Fisheries, IMW streams have systems to track salmon and steelhead from emergence at the fry stage to when the fish return as adults. In some cases, NOAA said, antennas are buried in stream bottoms to detect PIT-Tags in fish as they leave and return, documenting how many of the fish use the restored habitat.


The information in the IMW stream is compared with separate control streams that have not had restoration projects.


The study, “Progress and Challenges of Testing the Effectiveness of Stream Restoration in the Pacific Northwest Using Intensively Monitored Watersheds,” was published online January 28, 2016, in the  journal Fisheries, the monthly journal of the American Fisheries Society,


For additional information about IMWs, including a case study and data accompanying the article, go to AFS is granting free access to the information through February.


In addition to Bennett, authors are: George Pess, supervisory research fishery biologist, Chris Jordan, program manager, and Correigh Greene, research biologist, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA, Seattle, WA; Nicolaas Bouwes, aquatic ecologist, Eco Logical Research Inc., Providence, UT; Phil Roni, principal scientist, Cramer Fish Sciences, Sammamish, WA; Robert E. Bilby, senior science advisor, Weyerhaeuser Co., Federal Way, WA; Sean Gallagher, senior environmental scientist, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Fort Bragg, CA; Jim Ruzycki, Mid-Columbia Program Manager, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, La Grande, OR; Thomas Buehrens, research scientist, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, Vancouver, WA; Kirk Krueger, senior research scientist, and Joseph Anderson, senior research scientist, WDFW, Olympia, WA; William Ehinger, freshwater ecologist, Washington Department of Ecology, Lacey, WA; and Brett Bowersox, fisheries staff biologist, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Lewiston, ID.


Simply implementing restoration and then monitoring the fish and habitat does not constitute an IMW, according to the study. The study says an intensively monitored watershed is “an experiment that uses a management action (restoration) as a treatment and intensive monitoring to detect whether a watershed-scale fish response to that action occurred.” The intensive monitoring is well-suited to adaptive management, the study adds.


The goals of such an approach are to determine the effectiveness of restoration actions at increasing salmon and steelhead productivity; determine why fish respond to the habitat improvements; and, ultimately, to replicate the results in other watersheds “where intensive monitoring is not possible due to limited budgets,” the study says.


And, yes, it can be expensive. Bennett said he does not know the cost of all IMWs, although the Asotin Creek IMW in the Columbia River basin, which he works on, has an annual operating budget of $200,000 and others could cost as much as twice that amount.


And, it will take time to determine the benefits of habitat restoration projects, the study says.


"We're looking for a long-term response to restoration from an animal that can vary widely from year to year," said NOAA Fisheries’ Pess. He assisted with an IMW that tracked the return of salmon to Washington's Elwha River following the removal of two Elwa River dams in 2011.


"You need sufficient time and detail to be able to say, yes, the fish are increasing and, yes, it's because of the improvements in the habitat," he said.


According to the study, of the 17 IMWs, nine are in Washington, four are in Oregon. Nine of the IMWs are in the Columbia River basin. Among the IMWs in the Columbia River basin are the Entiat and Methow rivers in Washington’s upper Columbia basin, the Lemhi and Potlatch rivers in Idaho, the lower Columbia River (Mill, German and Abernathy creeks) and the Wind River.


IMWs are currently evaluating some seven common restoration actions across four states and eight ecoregions. The most common (13) is instream placement of woody debris, followed by habitat reconnection/improved access to tributary and floodplain habitats (8), and barrier removal (5). Multiple restoration actions are occurring in 12 IMWs.


Some of the results already confirmed for IMW restoration projects are:


-- a 250 percent increase in numbers of juvenile fish in areas of Asotin Creek in Washington with restored habitat compared to those without.


--juvenile coho salmon survival in the Alsea River in Oregon increased 50 percent in summer and 300 percent in the winter after restoration improved rearing habitat.


--when posts were installed on Bridge Creek, a tributary of the John Day River, in order to help beavers construct dams to reduce erosion and boost the water table,  the production of juvenile steelhead increased 175 percent.


--reconnection of side channels expanded available habitat on the Methow River in Washington and fish numbers increased 400 percent to 800 percent.


--scientists have thought that coho salmon that migrate to the ocean in the fall of their first year do not survive, but IMW studies have revealed that the fall fish may be important contributors to adult returns, demonstrating that such diversity may be important to the long-term resilience of these fish.


When establishing IMWs, the authors recommend establishing an adaptive management framework ahead of time.


“It should be clear from the onset that the priorities of the IMW should be to test the effectiveness of restoration actions at the appropriate scale and to identify the causal mechanisms of the observed responses where possible,” the study says. Long-term funding is necessary to quantify the response because “it will likely take years to decades for such responses to unfold.”


“These long term experiments are the best and arguably only way to definitively determine if restoration is working - and we will learn a lot about fish populations and watershed function in the process of conducting these experiments,” Bennett said. “But people (funding agencies, the public) need to be patient – watershed-scale experiments are complicated, fish populations are difficult to study (due to high natural variability) – it will take 10 to 20 years of careful monitoring to answer the question ‘is restoration working.’”


Also see:


-- CBB, Sept. 4, 2015, “Study: Habitat Restoration Projects Often Fail To Target Highest Priority Needs For Ecosystem, Salmon”


-- CBB, April 3, 2015, “Producing Salmon: Study Looks At Cost Effectiveness Of Habitat Restoration Compared To Hatcheries”


-- CBB, Nov. 7, 2014, “Adding Wood Structures To Streams Promotes Fish Recovery, But Do They Have To Cost So Much?”


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