By Kate Stringer — October 8, 2014 — Roseburg News Review —
Not many students can say they get paid to sleep with the fishes.
But the ones that can are in Douglas County.
Twelve students from the Phoenix Youth Corps participated this August in a two-week snorkeling lab at Canton Creek near Steamboat. Led by conservation ecologist Charley Dewberry, the students crawled through the creek bed in wet suits and snorkeling masks, collecting data about fish health in the creek. The data will be used by the Pacific Rivers Council, a conservation organization based in Portland, to draft a restoration plan for the area.
This is the third year of the snorkeling program and a result of a partnership between Pacific Rivers, Phoenix Charter School and the Bureau of Land Management.
Pacific Rivers reached out to Dewberry, who completed contract work for the council for 20 years, to lead the project at Canton Creek. The council selected this creek because of its valuable fish supply — drawing fishermen from around the world, Dewberry said — and location in the logging areas of the Oregon and California Railroad Trust lands.
The fish health in Canton Creek has historically been impacted by logging. In the 1950s and ’60s, heavy logging practices reduced the fish population.
While the creek has become healthier since then, the conditions still are not perfect. Logging has removed trees that once furnished natural shade or sediment traps. Blank pockets pepper the creek bed, an unwelcome place for fish looking to feed and spawn.
This is where the students make a literal splash onto the scene.
They divide the creek into parts, glides, pools and riffles, and collect data from selected sections
Eyes below water, the students move slowly upstream so as not to startle the fish. At certain glides, pools and riffles, they submerge and count the number of fish and estimate age based on length. They also measure the length and width of the creek bed.
“It is completely different (below water),” said Shelbey Neifert, one of the student snorkelers. “Everything is magnified and pretty, even if it doesn’t look pretty from the top. Algae that looks brown through (surface) water is actually bright purple underneath water.”
This is Neifert’s third year collecting data with Dewberry at Canton Creek. She’s a graduate of Roseburg High School and a sophomore at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls.
The BLM taught the youth how to snorkel, though Phoenix provided the gear funded through grants.
“Through projects such as this we provide education and training (youth) need to get into natural resources as a career,” said Joseph Edmonds, an AmeriCorps VISTA at the BLM. “Also they learn that working outside can be fun and they learn what goes into collecting accurate data.”
Phoenix Charter School teacher Thomas McGregor said collecting data isn’t an easy task.
The effort takes memorization, sleuth-like maneuvering, and a fearless attitude of cold creek water.
“You have to get down there and it doesn’t matter how cold you are or how cold the water is,” snorkler Josh Hubbs, a junior at Glide High School, said.
Their data collection was mostly accurate, Dewberry said. He fact-checked numbers by re-diving some portions of the creek. The only discrepancies in data he found were some estimates of fish’s ages.
Recording the location and ages of fish through the creek gives Dewberry a pulse on the health of a creek. A high recording of fish indicates there are enough places for them to spawn. Small fish numbers mean something’s missing.
Often the missing links are large fallen trees that collect a buildup of sediment, reducing the temperature of the creek and giving fish a place to spawn and feed.
A healthy creek should have about 10 of these tree-jams every mile, Dewberry said. In Canton Creek, one eight-mile stretch has none.
Not only do fish need trees in the water, but they need ones out of the water to shade the creek, keeping the temperatures cool.
The three years of data will be used to write a restoration plan for the Canton Creek area. The council will give the plan to the BLM, recommending strategies to encourage fish habitation.
Pacific Rivers Council Conservation Director Greg Haller said this plan could include placing large trees across a creek to give fish homes or planting trees along the banks for long-term growth.
“Ideally, yes we want to grow large trees that can fall in the stream through a natural process, but because there’s such a deficiency, we need to accelerate that,” Haller said.
Snorkeling a creek bed and making a customized restoration plan isn’t an approach most biologists take, Dewberry said, because it’s often expensive and time-consuming.
Yet, he said it’s necessary to understand individual bodies of water.
“What I’m doing is allowing the fish to tell me what the status of the basin is and what the risks are to them,” Dewberry said.
He points out that students and scientists collaborating is an effective model that could be replicated because it cuts back on costs and time.
It also gives students a minimum-wage-paying job and an educational opportunity.
“I enjoy that it gets kids doing science,” McGregor said. “It’s one of those rare things that changes kids lives. When you put your eyes under water, it’s a whole different river.”