For the survival of the species

Photo by Christian Knight

Before returning to the river, a tiny smolt waits in this perforated bucket of river water that is no more than two degrees warmer than the Columbia. Below, Justin Vance, left, and Leslie Lamb release smolts into the river below

The Dalles Dam, bucket by bucket as Zed Ruhlen

pilots the boat.


News staff writer

July 30, 2005

The beep is getting louder.

Louder and more frequent.

Each one lures Matt Springer and Brian Eckstrom closer to the white fury boiling out of The Dalles Dam.

Somewhere beneath the gurgling and burping surface, a juvenile Chinook salmon – no longer than a few inches and no older than a year – is swimming for its life.

One day ago, a seasonal fish tagger anesthetized it, slipped a pinto bean-sized electronic transmitter into its belly and then dumped the tiny salmon into a perforated bucket of river water where, for a day, it slowly recuperated.

A contracted United States Geological Survey (USGS) seasonal worker then dumped it below John Day Dam so researchers could study how it would survive a journey along the river, down The Dalles Dam’s 50-foot spillway and through the sucking undercurrents that churn at its base.

Mostly, however, USGS researchers are concerned with how the smolt will escape this one-and-a-half-mile stretch of lapping greenwater known as the Tailrace.

This is where seagulls hover; where pike minnow and small-mouth bass congregate, all eager to capitalize on the bounty of stunned salmon and steelhead, which this dam has consolidated into one feasting pool for opportunistic predators.

Springer and Eckstrom have been following the smolt for nearly a half an hour now, way longer than most young Chinook need to escape this upper portion of the Tailrace.

The radio beeps again.

And again.

It leads Eckstrom and Springer under the bridge in the direction of a pike minnow fisherman who has anchored his boat to the cement piling.

The closer they drive the aluminum jet boat toward the fisherman, the louder the radio beeps.

If the radio signal is right – and it almost always is – the smolt hasn’t moved since they first detected it.

Springer and Eckstrom realize now this one didn’t make it out.

He and the electronic transmitter are probably in the bowels of a pike minnow or a small-mouth bass that is swimming near the fisherman’s boat or is in it, waiting to be traded to the Department of Fish and Wildlife for a bounty.

The digested smolt has become one of thousands of statistical martyrs in the federal government’s annual $600 million-effort to save more salmon and steelhead from the effects of dams throughout the West.

In the day or so that USGS researchers have been tracking it, this tiny smolt has contributed hundreds of lines of data. The data will tell researchers how long it was in one area and how long it needed to swim to get there.

With this information, researchers hope to minimize fish mortality on the Columbia.

It’s a noble and somewhat prestigious assignment for two guys without biology degrees.

But the altruistic nature of the job is not what attracts Eckstrom and Springer.

It’s the schedule.

Every year this study and another one designed to estimate fish survival through dams attracts about 35 seasonal workers to the Columbia River Research Laboratory on the Little White Salmon River, which has been there since 1982.

For Eckstrom, Springer and the 33 other seasonals, the job starts with the juvenile Chinook run in the last week of April and ends in the third week of July. They work 10-, sometimes 12-hour shifts for six and seven days at a time, tagging and releasing fish under the sun for one week and then tagging and releasing them under the moon in the next week. All in an effort to maintain pace with nature.

Most of these seasonals are outdoor sports zealots, so passionate about their recreational lifestyle they follow it everywhere, abandoning – or at least postponing – the idea of permanent time clocks and mortgages.

Eckstrom’s priority is fishing, which he pursues 200 days a year.

“Easily,” he says. His smile disappears when you ask him where he fishes.

Springer fishes too. One hundred days a year.

Windsurfing, however, is what brought him to the Gorge from Boulder, Colo., 15 years ago. He’s a ski patroller at Mt. Hood Meadows in the winter; construction worker in the late summer.

And in between, he’s a fish tracker. This is his first season.

“This summer has been awesome,” Springer says. “It’s my introduction into all this techy stuff.”

Springer is part of a seven-person crew, which tracks the paths of tagged fish. He and Eckstrom will follow seven, maybe eight fish in a day, mimicking their movements beep by beep two kilometers downriver, away from the sea gulls and pike minnow.

In all, the Columbia River Research Laboratory monitors about 20,000 fish during the spring and summer Chinook runs through The Dalles Dam, a mere fraction of the millions that churn through it during the same time period on their ways to the sea.

The Dalles Dam can kill fish in variety of ways. It can send them through the turbins – a vast chamber of revolving metal, where 20 percent of those who enter die, according to 2004’s preliminary research estimates by the Columbia River Research Laboratory.

The fish can slide through the sluiceway, which thrusts them into a conveyor-belt of fast, deep water, along the sides of which eager sea gulls and pike minnow wait.

Or they can die by swimming over the 50-foot spillway, which kills nine percent of those who descend it, according to preliminary research estimates by the laboratory.

This is just one dam.

The journey for juvenile salmon from Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in Idaho to the Bonneville Dam takes 15 to 20 days.

It begins with millions of yearlings eager to race to the ocean where they will eat and grow.

By the time they reach Bonneville Dam, they have passed through eight dams.

Fifty percent have died.

In the early 1990s, salmon and steelhead populations plummeted to extinction in some stocks and to the Endangered List in others. Congress, by the direction of the Endangered Species Act, directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to devote more monetary energy into the effort of reducing salmon and steelhead mortality.

The Corps had already been trying by expediting steelhead’s and salmon’s journey to the sea by transporting them around the dams on specially designed trucks and barges.

The Corps has continued this practice, transporting 15 to 20 million yearlings a year (50 to 75 percent of the total) around the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

But it amplified another effort.


In the 1980s, research teams at the Columbia River Research Laboratory were relatively small, employing five to seven seasonals.

But as technology improved and the laboratory’s capacity for research increased, so did its budgets and crew sizes.

For the fiscal year of 2005, the laboratory won $11 million from the Army Corps of Engineers to pursue 20 different studies – all of which are dedicated to answer the question: Can salmon live in a civilized world of light bulbs and electric stoves?

During the juvenile migration run, 190 people at the lab are working to help answer that question.

Environmentalists argue salmon are an integral part of the inter-connecting web of life.

Springer and Eckstrom are two of the hundreds who, for a short season, try to hold it together.

The Columbia River Research Laboratory is hosting an open-house for the first time in 50 years Aug. 27 for more information call: (509) 538-2299.

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