Dream job

Kayak surveys provide important data for fish habitat on Clear Creek

Charles Stanley, biologist for the Red Bluff Fish and Wildlife Office, kayaks down Clear Creek on a recent fish survey in mid-February, 2020. Photo credit: John Heil/USFWS, video credit: Jake Sisco/USFWS



By John Heil
June 5, 2020

three people kayaking

Recently hired biological science technicians for the Red Bluff Fish and Wildlife Office Teresa Urrutia, (left), and Melody Scarborough (right), kayak down Clear Creek with fish biologist Gabriella Moreno (center). Credit: John Heil/USFWS

Imagine taking a kayak out on the water all day as a full-time job. Well, that’s exactly what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees from the Red Bluff office do for a portion of the year.

The work is critical for surveying Clear Creek for the presence of steelhead, rainbow trout and late-fall Chinook salmon nests known as redds.

“We primarily use this information to try and evaluate the effectiveness of our ongoing restoration projects on the creek,” said Ryan Schaefer, fish biologist for the Red Bluff office. “These surveys give us a good idea where the fish are spawning and if they are using the gravel that we’re putting in the creek to increase the available spawning area and hopefully help bolster salmonid populations. This is a great gig. There are days in this job when you think to yourself I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this, and this is one of those days (on a 70 degree/sunny day in February).”

a woman posing for a photo next to a kayak

“This is my dream job. I’ve wanted to be a marine biologist since I was a little girl, and being out here kayaking and snorkeling every day is just so rewarding,” said Gabriella Moreno, Service fish biologist for the Red Bluff office. Credit: John Heil/USFWS

Gabriella Moreno, a fish biologist who recently graduated from Colorado State University, agreed.

“This is my dream job. I’ve wanted to be a marine biologist since I was a little girl, and being out here kayaking and snorkeling every day is just so rewarding. It’s crazy that I get paid to do everything I love, from fun outdoor fieldwork to applying our research to conservation at the same time. It’s pretty unbelievable.”

Fish biologist Charles Stanley said he feels like the team is all extremely committed to the goals of the Service to preserve the resources for people.

“I work with a great group of guys and ladies who are all highly trained and dedicated,” said Stanley. “I think that the work that we do is critically important and sometimes overlooked. No one knows we’re out here and doing this, but the ultimate results of people catching fish and enjoying the outdoors are the benefit. I really enjoy the time out in the field, connecting with nature and being hands-on with the science that we do. I’m really proud and lucky to be a part of this office.”

two standing in a river people bending down measuring something.

Gabriella Moreno (right), Service fish biologist for the Red Bluff office, measures redds (fish nests) along Clear Creek. Melody Scarborough, biological science technician (left) inputs the data on a GPS tablet. Credit: John Heil/USFWS

The Service recently explained why snorkel surveys were so important - so why kayaks?

“Well, the kayaks are an advantage because they can let us go through deeper water obviously and access more of the creek,” said Charlie Chamberlain, a fish biologist in the Red Bluff office. “They give you a little bit of a raised position if you’re sitting on your knees, which helps you see in the water a little better and cover more of the creek.”

Using GPS tablets to record information bi-weekly when weather conditions allow, the team can mark new redds, revisit redds, characterize their age and get an idea how long they are visible, and avoid double-mapping them. In the long run, it helps with accuracy about the run timing for the fish and to be more quantitative in their effort.

“If we see anything that looks clean, maybe it’s just sunlight, maybe it is fish activity, we’ll call out ‘redd,’” said Moreno explaining the process. “At that point, we will all hop out of the kayak, all look at it, come to a group consensus, and talk it through. If we all agree, we will mark it - we have a statistical-like random sampler on our tablet that will tell us if we need to take a sample or not. That way we are not biased, and 20 percent of the redds will get sampled.”

four people kayaking.

The Red Bluff Fish and Wildlife Office gets set for a kayak survey in Clear Creek in mid-February, 2020: Charles Stanley, biologist (Center), John Lang, biologist (top left), Mike Schraml, supervisory fish biologist (bottom left) and Laurie Earley, supervisory fish biologist (far right), get their kayaks ready for counting redds. Credit: John Heil/USFWS

a man sanding in a river pointing at something.

“The best habitat out here is the stuff that the creek has actually built,” said Charlie Chamberlain, a fish biologist in the Red Bluff office. Credit: John Heil/USFWS

Once we have sampled it and recorded the GPS point, we are good to go. Or, if it has already been marked, we will just age it and put that into our tablet as well. It’s almost like we are lifeguards, like looking left and right, trying to survey as much as we can.”

From the survey results showing where the redds are and how the fish are doing, Service personnel can then focus on how to alter the creek for better connectivity to the flood plain to improve the habitat using gravel supplementation and other management practices.

However, when all is said and done, “the best habitat out here is the stuff that the creek has actually built,” said Chamberlain. “We’re trying to set the table for the creek to build those habitats. The redd survey gives us an index of how the populations are doing. It lets us know the distribution of fish through the creek. We compare that to the distribution of habitats. It helps us be better informed about the flow and gravel actions we ought to take.”

Juvenile fall-run Chinook salmon in the shallow waters of Clear Creek

Juvenile fall-run Chinook salmon in the shallow waters of Clear Creek on a warm day in February. Credit: John Heil/USFWS

“We’re trying to get an idea about the abundance of steelhead and late-fall Chinook salmon in Clear Creek,” said Schaefer. “We’re using the redd data we collect as an index to get that information. We’d like to know specifically how many redds there are and where the fish are spawning. Restoration actions are occurring continually and we want to ensure we are using them to conduct sound management. The redd survey is an important component of the whole restoration process on Clear Creek.”

a woman walking in a river pulling a kayak with a mountain in the background.

Teresa Urrutia, biological science technician, with her kayak on Clear Creek on a warm day in February. Credit: John Heil/USFWS

For more than 20 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, National Marine Fisheries Service and Western Shasta Resource Conservation District have been working to restore Clear Creek to improve habitat and recover populations of Central Valley spring run, fall run and late-fall run Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead.

 

John Heil

John Heil

About the writer...

John Heil serves as the deputy assistant regional director for external affairs in the Pacific Southwest Region headquarters in Sacramento, California.

An avid sports fan and boogie boarder he also enjoys the outdoors and all that wildlife has to offer. John is also an U.S. Air Force veteran and spent part of his career overseas as a television and radio broadcaster.

More stories by John:

The natural portfolio
Confronting challenges
Boots in the water
A job that will 'kick your butt'
Looks are deceiving for 'scary-looking' lamprey