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Ecology and salmon related articles

Diving Ducks Found to be
Culprit in Missing Fish Case

by Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - June 30, 2004

WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Dam operators researching birds that prey on endangered fish in the mid-Columbia River should have been looking to demure ducks swimming in the water instead of blaming high-flying gulls, according to preliminary findings of a study.

The merganser consumes more young salmon and steelhead than any other bird along the reservoirs of Rock Island and Rocky Reach dams, University of Washington researcher Julia Parrish said. The swimming duck accounts for nearly two-thirds of the salmon taken by birds.

"They are the unknown predator that you've had in your system the whole time," Parrish told commissioners with the Chelan County Public Utility District on Monday. "Yet there is no management of the merganser in the Columbia."

The utility hired Parrish in 2002 to study bird predation on salmon. The $3 million study is the first comprehensive look at salmon-eating birds on the Columbia, and the results likely will be used by dam operators throughout the river system to manage the predators.

The work was expected to focus primarily on California gulls, ring-billed gulls, Caspian terns and double-crested cormorants.

Parrish said that when she started the study, she expected to verify a commonly held belief that gulls were the greediest salmon-eaters among all the birds. Instead, she found the merganser was swimming right under the radar of dam operators.

Also surprising was that the feed was occurring in the calm reservoirs behind the dams, rather than the tailraces, where fish often lie dazed after their journey through the turbines or bypass system.

Eighty percent of all the fish eaten by birds are caught in the reservoirs behind the dams, not below them, the study found.

The utility's wildlife experts were surprised by the findings.

"For years, we've thought that all the mortality occurred right below the dams, and that it was gulls and terns doing all the eating," Todd West, the utility's fish and wildlife supervisor, told The Wenatchee World for a story in Wednesday's edition.

For the study, Parrish observed birds along 62 miles of river between Rock Island and Wells dams, killing about 1,500 birds to examine their stomach contents and fat tissue.

Mergansers accounted for more than 60 percent of the salmon consumption, according to the preliminary results. The gull came in a distant second with 25 percent of the salmon consumption.

Among all birds, gulls also eat 75 percent of northern pikeminnow, a fish that preys on salmon, so Parrish also cautioned officials that salmon could suffer in other ways if they try to reduce gull populations.

Parrish also exposed the misconception that the larger cormorants and terns were eating volumes of endangered young salmon and steelhead. She said that while the migratory birds have voracious appetites, they don't show up in the mid-Columbia until later in the summer, after the small salmon and steelhead have already passed through the reservoirs.

Parrish advised the utility to use a habitat approach to control mergansers and gulls to push them away from the areas where they traditionally feast on fish.

West said no other dam operators on the Columbia were aware of the problem with mergansers, which are not threatened or endangered but are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Using the findings from the completed study, the utility hopes to have a new bird management program in place by next spring. The program could include using hazing, pyrotechnics and other methods to scare mergansers and gulls away.

Continued work lies ahead with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's wildlife services division to get the permits needed to manage the birds, West said.

"We don't want to wipe out all the birds to save the salmon," he said. But, "If we can control these birds, then we can potentially increase survival of endangered fish through our reservoirs."

Associated Press
Diving Ducks Found to be Culprit in Missing Fish Case
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 30, 2004

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