To save salmon, novice fish biologists first must count them

By Scott Greenstone — July 28, 2015 — Roseburg News Review

Charley Dewberry never knows what he’s going to come across when he’s counting salmon. In more than 25 years of professionally tallying fish, he’s stumbled on skinny dippers, been thwacked by otters and come face-to-face with a black bear.

Nothing stops Dewberry from coming back. He’s now 66, and he still surveys from June to October. He looks out of place, wearing a snorkel and goggles with a wet suit and spiked boots, gliding across the tops of river pools. But Dewberry couldn’t be more at home — he started snorkeling rivers at age 12.

Since Dewberry thinks this year might be his last in the pools, on Monday he was training seven local high school and college students in the Canton Creek Watershed up the North Umpqua River.

Those students are part of the Oregon Youth Corps and attend Roseburg High School, Riddle High School and Umpqua Community College. Dewberry worries their generation is more interested in computers than in doing field work, which biologists need to do.

Many of the Oregon Youth Corps members, like Riddle High senior Tyler Wilson, are considering going into biology or forestry, and this counting exercise serves as a crash course.

“This job is pretty cool compared to some,” Wilson said.

Dewberry was one of the original divers who created the standard counting technique these students learned Monday.

Salmon counting is key to measuring stream recovery in Douglas County, according to Jeff McEnroe, a fish biologist with the Bureau of Land Management. The recent warm water temperatures that caused the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to restrict angling haven’t affected these fish, because they are far up the tributaries. When loggers originally came through the area in the 1960s, however, they cleared the log jams out of the streams, thinking they were helping the salmon get to their spawning grounds. Instead, Canton Creek became a chute that allowed water to race down and tear away gravel that the salmon needed to hide in during winter. As a result, fish numbers have dwindled, McEnroe said.

The Bureau of Land Management wants to bolster the salmon numbers but needs to establish baselines.

Fish counters must measure the pools, tally the fish and categorize them according to age. Then they have to climb carefully up the slippery rocks — in the studded boots funded by the Cow Creek Umpqua Indian Foundation — to the next pool. To make sure the process is up to scientific standards, Dewberry, McEnroe or one of the other conservationists goes behind the students and counts again.

The key is to herd the fish from one end of the pond, Dewberry said, and then only count the ones that swim past. The biggest salmon shoot away long before divers arrive, but the small ones will even approach the counters’ goggles.

The counting efforts won’t come to fruition for a long time. Humans have spent more than 100 years working in these basins, Dewberry said, and have changed how sediment and water and organic matter move down the ridge-tops into tributaries and out of the streams. It’s a system Dewberry calls the digestive system of a watershed.

“We’ve affected that for a hundred years,” Dewberry said, “and it’s going to take at least a hundred to fundamentally change the trajectory.”

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