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: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. 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.