Copper River Record October 2015
By Robin Mayo
I am thigh-deep in a beaver swamp on a chilly September morning, glad for thick fleece under my chest waders. The arrow on the GPS pointed us here, to a waypoint we marked yesterday afternoon amidst the maze of ponds, channels, muskeg, and willow. A strip of orange surveyor’s tape helps locate a cord tied to the bushes on an overgrown beaver dam. We pull up the cord, and the wire mesh minnow trap at the end has to break through thin shards of ice as it surfaces.
A telltale vibration of the minnow trap is our first indication that something is alive inside. Many of our traps this morning have held juvenile dolly varden, immediately recognizable by their speckled backs. But in this trap we see a tiny flash of silver, and our hopes rise. We are hoping to find salmon fry in this previously unsampled location, the first step in the process of adding new waters to the State of Alaska Anadromous Waters Catalog.
For the past several years, WISE has been helping the Copper River Watershed Project (CRWP) with their “Salmon Blitz” program. With the help of grants from Wells Fargo via the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the North Pacific Research Board, we are exploring previously undocumented streams all over the Copper River Watershed, hoping to find baby salmon at home.
This location is near mile 64 of the Richardson Highway, a large spread of new and old beaver projects near the headwaters of the Little Tonsina River. The highest previous sample point is several miles downstream, so we are wading into new territory.
To choose sample sites for Salmon Blitz, the first step is the online State of Alaska Anadromous Waters Catalog, available to the public via the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website. Orange squares mark sampling extents, and we look for streams that have likely-looking habitat upstream which have not been sampled. Google Earth and ownership databases are consulted, owners or land managers are contacted for permission, and we try to find practical access to the site.
The fun begins when we explore the site on foot and start setting traps. Whenever possible, we bring along students or volunteers to expand the reach of this Citizen Science project. Operating with a permit from ADF&G, we bait the trap with salmon eggs which have been treated to avoid spreading disease. After soaking overnight, the traps are pulled and their occupants identified, measured, photographed, and released. We also collect observations and measurements of many different aspects of the habitat, and take photographs.
This fall’s Salmon Blitz activities identified juvenile coho salmon in two new locations: The beaver complex on the upper Little Tonsina, and Squirrel Creek above the pipeline crossing. Kenny Lake School middle school students accompanied us on the second exploration, bringing enthusiasm and great attitudes to a challenging piece of terrain. We scrambled through alder hells, willow thickets, and mazes of downed spruce trees, and wading in the creek was no easier, with slippery rocks and swift current. More data will be collected before the locations are submitted to ADF&G for inclusion in the statewide database.
Although we collect data on all life stages found, this study is focusing especially on what is called “rearing habitat,” the areas where the salmon fry live in the several years between hatching and migrating downstream to the ocean. As we study, we are learning that juvenile salmon travel widely throughout systems during their young lives, and rearing habitat can be very different from what we think of as spawning habitat. All of it reinforces our belief that “it takes a whole watershed to raise a salmon.”
Salmon Blitz will continue in 2016 with school field trips and volunteer opportunities all over the Copper River Watershed. Please contact WISE at 822-3575, or CRWP at 424-3334 if you would like to get involved.
Kenny Lake Middle School students take a width measurement on Squirrel Creek. CRWP Photo
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.