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Ecology and salmon related articles

Russian River may be Key to NW Fish Survival

by Jim Mann
The Daily Inter Lake, March 22, 2000

Jack Stanford says he's seen the secrets to recovering native fish stocks in the Northwest -- on Russia's rugged Kamchatka Peninsula.

The director of The University of Montana's Biological Station at Yellow Bay participated in an expedition last October that carried a team of scientists and anglers down the unexplored Krutogorova River. The group, sponsored by the Portland-based Wild Salmon Center, floated more than 200 kilometers aboard rafts. Starting from the river's narrow headwaters high on the flanks of a desolate mountain range, the party coursed its way down broad and braided floodplains to the Sea of Okhotsk.

The group portaged around and cut its way past log jams and explored riverbanks heavily traveled by huge Russian brown bears.

"This river probably had never been navigated before by boat," Stanford said.

And the ecology of the Krutogorova River and many others on the peninsula had never been studied before, said Stanford, who served as the team's river ecologist.

While others in the group caught salmon and steelhead to collect scale samples and other biological data, Stanford kept his eyes on the river's distinctly wild characteristics.

"It's good to get a picture of what rivers that we have spent millions of dollars managing once looked like," Stanford said.

The Russian river winds through a flood plain that developed over thousands of years. With the help of continuous log jams, new channels are constantly created. Old channels are left dry. Shallow backwaters and alcoves are plentiful in between.

And that is where Stanford found what he was looking for: "I collected six species of baby salmonoids under one log in one backwater."

It turned out that nearly all the shallow waters were rippling with millions of shiny fry. A total of 11 different salmonoid species were collected. Through much of the year, the river's main channel runs thick with one spawning run after another.

There are few similarities with rivers of the American Northwest, Stanford said. Rivers across this region have been hemmed in by revetments, dams and rip-rap, ranging from concrete blocks to old cars.

On many rivers, Stanford said, it all started with a parallel railroad. Then came roads, followed by highways, and then broader highways. Then came development. "With the railroad, you had to control the river," he said.

Many of the Northwest's wild rivers were transformed into big ditches, with main channels that were gradually separated from their floodplains. Rivers have gouged out deeper channels, altering groundwater patterns, and, in many cases, drying out the shallow backwaters that trout and salmon reproduction depends on.

Remaining backwaters in the basin are often inhabited by introduced predators that have thrived on salmon produced in hatcheries, he said.

Stanford asserts that the connection between a river and its flood plain is essential for natural trout and salmon reproduction. And without it, he says that efforts to restore native fish stocks are futile.

Stanford acknowledges that the Northwest's river managers ae wrestling with a stew of interests, including hydropower, barge transportation and commerical fisheries that put a high demand on hatchery production. That has resulted in one failure after another, he says. Salmon stocks will continue to "wink out" of existence unless there is a fundamental change in thinking and priorities, he says.

"They have always dealt with rivers that are stubsantially modified and regulated," he said. "That's the basis for their thinking. And that needs to change."

Dam breaching has been the most widely discussed "cure" for Snake River salmon stocks. Stanford says that breaching one or two of those of lower Snake's four dams may be a cost-efficient experiment. But he said it's highly uncertain that dam breaching alone will restore the Snake's native salmon stocks.

Dam breaching "is not a panacea, and it shouldn't be shown that way," he said.

Addressing predators and restoring spawning and rearing habitat would probably be necessary, he said. And even then, the stocks may be incapable of generating a natural spawning cycle above the dams.

Stanford says that some rivers are too developed to be restored. But there are many, like the Yakima and the Flathead, where the floodplain is still connected to the river, and those offer the best chances for recovering native fish stocks.

Basic measures to protect that connection, he said, will offer the best chances at maintaining and even recovering native fish.

Stanford says the answers are on the Kamchatka Peninsula, where he plans to return this fall to explore another river.

Jim Mann
Russian River may be Key to NW Fish Survival
The Daily Inter Lake- Kalispell, Montana, March 22, 2000

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