James Fraser

Celebrating 30 Years of the Salmonberry River Data Collection Project

The Salmonberry River Data Collection Project: Citizen scientists compile long term wild fish database

Note: This is a shorter version of an article Joyce wrote for The Osprey. Read her full article here.

By Joyce Sherman

This year, 2022, will be the 30th year of the Salmonberry River Data Collection Salmon Trout Enhancement Program (STEP) project, a program sponsored by the Oregon De­partment of Fish and Wildlife to facili­tate volunteer fisheries-related projects. My husband Marty Sherman and I started this project in 1993 to col­lect data on a healthy run of wild winter steelhead over five years for baseline data. The Salmonberry seemed a per­fect place to establish what needs to be present for a run of wild fish to prosper.

Wild River, Wild Fish

The Salmonberry River originates in a remote area of the Coast Range in Northwestern Oregon, flowing 20 miles through temperate rainforest before entering the Nehalem River. All the Salmonberry’s fish populations — salmon and trout as well as steelhead — are wild.

The only industrial activity within the entire basin is timber harvest and, for­merly, the Port of Tillamook Bay Rail­road (POTBRR), which only ran about once a week. There is a small group of cabins and Salmonberry Lodge at the mouth of the river, but the only roads within the basin were built to harvest timber. One member of the original Oregon Trout Steelhead Committee group, Randy Stetzer, has continued to survey every year.

Over decades of working in fish conservation on the Salmonberry, I have learned these basic facts: wild fish are more adapt­able than hatchery fish; have more stable redd counts; destructive short-rotation industrial forestry needs to be stopped; and volunteers can do a great job of data collection that government agencies can never afford to do.

The first year, we did everything wrong! We sur­veyed the North Fork Salmonberry River before fish could get over the falls at its lower end. We surveyed Wolf Creek flats after the fish had finished spawning, and quickly learned that redds can disappear within two weeks on a high gradient stream. We did place temperature monitors in the river, in major tributaries and below each tributary, but the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s clo­sure of the Seaside office meant that our data was lost. That taught us to keep copies of all the data ourselves! Fortunately, Ian Fergusson joined the project in 1994. In addition to doing a full share of surveying, he has carefully managed the data ever since, shaping it into easily understood reports. We also learned that it was necessary to tether water temperature monitors to some­thing stable to prevent their loss from high water flows.

The Stability of Wild Runs

Annual surveys from 1973 through 2021 show a pattern of redd counts cy­cling widely around the long-term aver­age of 24 redds per mile. There is not a discernible trend, either up or down, which indicates a stable population. Some years, hatchery runs were dis­mally low, while the wild steelhead pop­ulation was stable. One of the foundations of STEP was to encourage wild runs whenever possible rather than simply adding more hatchery smolts. When Walt Weber and I surveyed juvenile wild winter steelhead following the 1996 flood, we found that, although many of the small fish had been blown over ob­stacles such as rapids and falls, the ju­veniles were present below the obstacles in numbers surprisingly close to normal. In other words, there were fewer fry than normal, but the percent­age of fry that survived to go out as smolts was higher than normal.

The December 2007 flood made the devastation of the 1996 flood look like almost nothing! The main stem Salmonberry River through the canyon was often bedrock with gravel piled shoulder-high on one side. Although we found little spawning in the main stem and none in the lower three miles of river, the redd counts for the two North Fork surveys were record-breaking! By this time, much of the basin had been clear cut or extensively thinned. In ad­dition, North Fork falls had been notched during the flood, making it eas­ier for steelhead to get over the falls.

The railroad was damaged be­yond affordable repair. While the canyon section worked to restore itself to a normal river, the lower river, with its gentler gradient, collected huge amounts of silt sent downstream. After river levels dropped in late May, the gravel was like aggregate, ce­mented together. There were no redds found in the lower river until 2018, when there was one redd. The following year there were two, and then numbers worth counting in 2020 and 2021 — 12 and 13 seasons after the 2007 flood!

The past few years have seen such dismal returns of salmon and steelhead up and down the Oregon coast that salmon runs have been officially declared disasters, but our redd counts of wild winter steel­head for 2021 were the second highest average for all survey reaches and the highest ever for the lower North Fork at 130 redds per mile. Wild steelhead definitely seem to have abilities to overcome some habitat problems.

The Threat from Industrial Forestry

Overall, the Salmonberry Data Collec­tion Project has been far more success­ful and worthwhile than we ever dreamed it could or would be. Yes, there were early mornings when rain was pounding down and it seemed like a really bad plan to head for the Salmonberry, but I’ve never spent a truly bad day on the river. Even on the days with the worst weather, there were good moments that made me glad to be there.

While we didn’t intend to track the downside of industrial forestry, our data supports the belief that it is not good for rivers or fish — or for people who need domestic water. Towns all along the coast have been forced to de­clare water restrictions, as early as May this past summer. Roughly 80% of the west side of the Coast Range is man­aged for industrial forestry; it’s no sur­prise that coastal rivers like the Siletz report zero stream flows every sum­mer. Research by Perry & Jones of OSU found that young trees re­quire great amounts of water for at least 40 years. It’s generally agreed by many managers that trees continue to require lots of water for 80 years, or even longer. Perry & Jones showed that extensive logging and conversion of natural forest to tree plantations has resulted in significant long-term low streamflow compared to unlogged wa­tersheds. Short logging rotations of 40 or even 35 years mean that coastal rivers will never, ever be able to re­cover natural stream flows. There’s also the problem of herbicide spraying following clear cut­ting. There’s sim­ply no way to keep the deadly chemi­cals out of rivers, where it affects not only fish but all creatures that drink water, includ­ing humans. Clear cutting also means far more silt goes into rivers, often making spawning gravel impossible for fish to use.

Comparing nearly 50 years of sta­ble redd counts of wild winter steelhead, including both ours and ODFW’s, clearly contrasts with the wild fluctuations of nearby hatchery runs. With coastal rivers far lower dur­ing summers than they ever were in the past, steelhead and salmon must quickly adapt to finding better places to spawn. So far, the wild steelhead of the Salmonberry have been able to do that. It just may be possible that the poor hatchery salmon and steelhead returns of the past several years are due in part to hatchery fish spawning where their less adaptable offspring are doomed to die.

Recruiting Future Wild Fish Advocates

Best of all, a volunteer project can at­tract many people and teach them how rivers and fish interact. Some of the people who’ve volunteered for our proj­ect were already interested in fish, even knowledgeable about them, but the bulk of them knew very little about rivers and fish. Those people came away with new knowledge. Even if they never set foot on a survey again, they may be supportive of actions to aid fish. We’re looking forward to the post-Covid time when we can encourage large groups to survey the Salmonberry with us!

If you or a group you belong to is in­terested in starting a data collection project of your own, please feel free to contact us for additional information: joycesherman@charter.net or ian.fer­gusson@comcast.net. Today, with e-mail readily available, it’s far easier to or­ganize survey groups than it was 30 years ago, when we had to make lots of telephone calls a couple of days prior to each survey. Today, e-mail does the job much more easily. Temperature moni­tors are far less expensive these days, and it’s not difficult to apply for grants to buy them. Most of all, a data collec­tion project is a source of satisfaction, and a way to connect people to the nat­ural world. It’s a small step in making the world just a little bit better.

Joyce Sherman has been a River Steward on the Salmonberry for 30 years. She is a photographer, editor, and graphic designer, owner of River Graphics. Joyce served on the first STEP Advisory Committee, 1981-1987, helping to set up the guidelines for Oregon’s STEP program.

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