Flathead System a Control
by Jim Mann
YELLOW BAY -- For most of the summer, a blue catamaran raft has been plying Flathead rivers with a distinct array of high-tech equipment.
A strange sonar device called an acoustic Doppler juts from the raft frame into the water. It's connected to a laptop computer mounted in a protective wooden box, and there are several car batteries in another box to power it all.
The acoustic Doppler gathers a continuous flow of data -- depths and velocities -- every five seconds. The data collected serves a much larger project connected to salmon rivers across western North America and the Pacific Rim.
It's called the Salmon Rivers Observatory Network, and the University of Montana's Flathead Lake Biological Station and the Flathead river system are its center of gravity.
"People are amazed to find an inland research station deeply involved in ocean dynamics, but we are," says Jack Stanford, director of the biological station and the salmon river's project.
What could the Flathead River system possibly have to do with salmon rivers?
"If the Flathead River flowed into the Pacific Ocean rather than Flathead Lake, it would be a big-time salmon river just because of its characteristics," says Ric Hauer, a professor at the biological station and a lead scientist on the project. "We know more about this lake-river system than any other lake-river system in the world."
The biological station, largely through work by Hauer and Stanford, has accumulated a vast body of research about the Flathead River system's characteristics and the way in which the system is connected to the lake. "The 20 or 30 years of working on these (Flathead) rivers are what made it possible for us to go to places like Kamchatka, Alaska and British Columbia," Hauer said. "The Flathead basin is our base of knowledge."
The Flathead system -- the north, middle and south forks along with the main river -- also serves the larger project because it has no salmon.
"The Flathead serves as the control, because it doesn't have all that salmon decomposition," Stanford said. "We go from zero salmon in our control river to massive numbers of salmon in the Kol River in Kamchatka."
The decomposition of salmon that have spawned and died turns out to be one of the project's most important research themes. Huge numbers of decomposing fish, the thinking goes, serve as a rich organic fertilizer for river systems and their potential biological productivity.
"Future salmon runs are greatly dependent on past salmon runs," Stanford said. "We are the only ones to demonstrate it, and it will probably change the way people manage salmon stocks."
Stanford asserts that wild salmon stocks have been over- harvested for years. A worldwide harvest rate of about 80 percent likely is having a tremendous impact on the "fertilization effect," he said.
"If we are harvesting too many fish to promote good productivity, then in the end, the populations must decline. And that's what we've seen all around the Pacific Rim, and particularly in the Columbia River system."
Stanford acknowledges that dams have affected salmon runs. But "even with the dams, there's still a lot of connected habitat in the Columbia River Basin, enough to support more salmon," he said.
The salmon rivers project will produce scientific analysis that will have practical, economic implications for sustainability of a multimillion dollar industry, Stanford said.
"Figuring out how the economics and the biology fit together is very much a part of our project," he said. Hundreds of communities along salmon rivers heavily rely on wild salmon, Stanford said, so the ultimate goal is to ensure that salmon runs can be sustained well into the future.
The project, scheduled to carry on for at least 10 years, eventually will rank salmon rivers and their potential for improving salmon runs.
"We want the cross-site comparisons to at least greatly elaborate management tactics for salmon, if not change the whole way management and policy are developed," Stanford said. "We will provide much greater perspective in river ecology in the salmon management arena, if not change it altogether."
The salmon river project started in 2001 as an idea, basically, from Stanford's first trips to Kamchatka rivers in far eastern Russia. Since then, it has evolved into a major project for the biological station through partnerships with the Oregon-based Wild Salmon Center and Russia's Moscow State University.
The project is largely funded by the nonprofit Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
The project has taken tangible form with a new biological station on a stretch of Kamchatkas Kol River that is accessible only by helicopter.
Field work in Kamchatka, Alaska and British Columbia ties back to the related "river typology" work that has been under way on the Flathead river system.
"You can't study them all," Stanford said.
The project has basically evolved with improving technology, Stanford explained.
But it still requires "ground truthing" and that's where the elaborate science raft comes in, with the field work headed by Mark Lorang, a research assistant professor at the biological station.
"The science raft is getting the nitty gritty, on-the-ground measures so we can calibrate the satellite images," Stanford explains.
The work in the Flathead and on other rivers will provide detailed information that will allow researchers to "evaluate the intrinsic salmon production potential" of rivers, Stanford said.
The project will provide a "demonstration of a better way to conduct conservation and management of salmon rivers," Stanford said. "At the same time, were going to learn a lot of new things."
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