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Big Water Upland: Fisheries Managers Contend With High Water Impacts On Fish Facilities
Posted on Friday, April 14, 2017 (PST)

The very nature of steelhead spawning season is tough, coinciding with high flows and spring storms rolling inland from the Pacific. This year is proving to be more difficult than usual for fish and the biologists who monitor them.


Joseph Creek is the Grande Ronde Basin’s stronghold for steelhead, just four miles upriver from the Grande Ronde River’s confluence with the Snake. Clark Watry, project leader for the Nez Perce Tribe’s adult steelhead monitoring program on Joseph Creek said the returning adults typically exceed the viable abundance or the delisting threshold of 1,000 fish a year.


Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Enterprise Field office has spawning ground records dating back to the 1960s. Jeff Yanke, the department’s Enterprise Field office fish biologist, said most of the surveys were done in the upper Joseph Creek watershed, but they have survey records along three miles of Swamp Creek in Joseph Creek’s lower watershed. Those redd counts were used to generate population abundance in the past, but he said in recent years the state relies on the adult weir and PIT tag array near the mouth of Joseph Creek run by the Nez Perce Tribe.


In 2011 the tribe installed a weir on Joseph Creek designed to monitor the magnitude of the run and develop trends in fish that reach their spawning ground. Now in the project’s seventh year, there is still a lot to learn about why steelhead flourish in this tributary.


Watry said, “We’re still trying to answer why it’s so good.”


High flows completely shut down the weir in 2014, Watry said, and this year is proving difficult as well. In early February Watry said the ice broke and high flows damaged the weir making trapping in Joseph Creek impossible.


Watry said, “High flows exceeded the operational capacity of the weir and while they persist we are not able to trap.”


When the water dropped briefly in March he said they were able to make some repairs and have intermittently been able to trap fish, but the weir isn’t across the whole creek, so it isn’t working effectively.


“It’s unfortunate we are all struggling through these high waters,” Watry said. “There are places we don’t know much about steelhead because of the time of year they are migrating and spawning.”


From late January through May Watry said his crew stays at the Washington State Joseph Creek Wildlife Area in bunkhouse facilities, a short walk to the tribe’s weir. With the fickle water levels and weather of late winter and spring, he said they rely heavily on the PIT tag array downstream of the weir during high flows and the early steelhead return from the beginning of November through mid-January when snow and ice prevent access to the wildlife area.


Watry said, “We are able to use that information in the early season to determine how many fish are moving into system before we get the weir in.”


He said a combination of the data from the weir, the array and spawning ground survey gives fish managers multiple methods to develop population estimates while increasing the reliability and equality of the estimates.


High spring water challenged managers at another remote northeastern Oregon facility, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Big Canyon hatchery satellite and acclimation site on the Wallowa River east of Minam operated from February through May.


High water affected the facility’s fish ladder in early March, Ron Harrod, manager for the Wallowa Hatchery, said, allowing 50 to 100 returning adult hatchery-raised steelhead to get upstream 100 yards where another barrier blocked them from entering Deer Creek.


“It was kind of a big deal,” Harrod said. “The implications of hatchery and wild fish spawning together weren’t good. We got a handle on it, but it was a disaster for a couple days.”


Rocks and debris crushed the panels adjacent to the bridge over Deer Creek to the point Harrod said they had to be pulled out.


“There were so many rocks on the panels we thought the water was going to take out the bridge,” Harrod said.


High water also flooded the site’s acclimation ponds forcing the release of smolt about a week earlier than scheduled. Harrod said they had been there about a month - long enough to be imprinted by Deer Creek’s water and were close to the ideal size for release.


While flows wreak havoc on facilities from the Snake and Columbia River dams to adult weirs, hatcheries and juvenile release sites, Harrod said there is at least one benefit.


“High water is excellent for smolts out-migrating to the ocean,” Harrod said.


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