Going with the flow

Fisheries field crew stays safe and gets the job done

two people bending over in a river looking through debris.

David Kissling, front, and Kate Wilcox practice social distancing while sorting through plants and debris to find juvenile salmon collected from a frame net fish trap in the Klamath River. Credit: Aaron Bachelier/USFWS

By Tyler Wallin and Susan Sawyer
July 23, 2020

What does a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field crew do when the start of the field season coincides with a rising global pandemic?

a landscape photo of a river and trees on a hill in the background with a cloudy blue sky.

The Klamath River flows 257 miles from Oregon through California to the Pacific Ocean, and is the second largest in California behind the Sacramento River. Credit: Aaron Bachelier/USFWS

The Fish and Aquatic Conservation program in Arcata, California, quickly learned the true meaning of adapt. As they began what would soon become an unprecedented season of monitoring juvenile salmon on the Klamath River, the crew discovered how to navigate the changing times to ‘go with the flow.’

Each spring, as juvenile salmon move downstream – known as outmigration - to the Pacific Ocean the Arcata field team heads to the river to collect crucial data for the Service and its many partners.

In early March, the 6-person crew launched three large, floating fish traps in the Klamath River to monitor juvenile salmon. By April, as health and workplace safety guidelines evolved, Arcata FAC program lead Nick Hetrick realized the team needed to adjust their daily protocol to maximize safety while maintaining the quality of collected data.

“Reliable data helps us assess the effects of management actions and develop tools to inform critical decisions on river flows,” Hetrick said. “The crew actively engaged in creative discussions about how to safely conduct field work during the pandemic, demonstrating their commitment to restoring native fishes within the [Klamath River] Basin during a very challenging time.”

a man standing next to a river

“The crew actively engaged in creative discussions about how to safely conduct field work during the pandemic," said FAC program lead Nick Hetrick. Credit: John Heil/USFWS

Ty Wallin, fish biologist at the Arcata office, explained there was an added urgency, given this year’s drought throughout the Basin. Data collection, and therefore the team, was essential to inform PacifiCorp’s operation of hydroelectric dams on the lower Klamath River, and Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Irrigation Project in the upper Basin.

“Providing a clear picture of the abundance and health of native fishes in real-time proved critical this year,” said Wallin. “Our data helped managers make difficult decisions regarding the Basin’s limited water resources.”

As river flows decreased and temperatures increased, the crew found that juvenile salmon were suffering from an extremely high rate of infection by a parasite that naturally occurs in the Klamath River. This meant collecting and summarizing data became a top priority to help inform managers on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

a large net in a river.

A frame net is positioned in the Klamath River to gather juvenile salmon as they make their way downstream to the ocean. The trap was set and monitored daily by the Arcata fish crew this spring to provide real-time data for water managers during a challenging field season. Credit: Aaron Bachelier/USFWS

The crew quickly adapted to keep themselves safe while accomplishing their work. They immediately adjusted to social distancing guidelines by assigning each person separate vehicles and field gear for the season, wearing gloves when loading and unloading equipment, maintaining 6-feet of distance when possible and wearing face coverings when working close together.

a metel trap in a river.

Rotary screw traps are 20-foot long, heavy pieces of equipment that typically require a team of seven people to move, launch and load. This season, teams of five completed the task with perseverance and brute strength. Credit: Aaron Bachelier/USFWS

Crew members also adapted the way in which tasks are performed. For instance, sampling fish typically requires several people, with each person performing one specific step in a process using specialized equipment. This season, one person was responsible for completing all steps in the process, which rotated weekly among the team to minimize contact with shared equipment. This system even applied to data recording to limit sharing items like pencils and clipboards.

The biggest lift came at the end of the season, literally, when the team removed the traps from the river. Typically, a crew of seven disassembles and loads the large, heavy traps. However, to reduce the risk of close contact, five people completed the task. The crew donned face coverings and gloves while using a combination of hand-tools, straps and winches along with a healthy dose of brute strength. Even though it took longer than normal, the team completed the job safely without incident, while ensuring the well-being of each team member.

“The Arcata crew did an amazing job of adapting to an unprecedented and challenging season,” said Bill Pinnix, supervisory fish biologist at the Arcata office. “They approached the ever-changing conditions as a team and their positive attitude and collaborative spirit was reflected in the quality of their work and attention to detail.”


Story Photo

Susan Sawyer

About the writer...

Susan Sawyer is the Klamath Basin public affairs officer, covering the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Klamath Falls and Yreka Fish and Wildlife Offices. She was raised in the California desert gaining a deep appreciation of the outdoors on family vacations to the Pacific coast, Sierras and Redwood forests.

She has worked in Arizona, Nevada, Montana, Idaho and now Oregon, where she spends her free time landscaping for wildlife, continuing to learn from and about nature and spoiling her animals.

More stories by Susan: