NF Calawah Goes Dry [Archive] - Fly Fishing Forum

: NF Calawah Goes Dry

10-31-2002, 10:57 PM
FYI, More bad news on the peninsula, this message was written by John McMillan of the Wild Salmon Center and emailed to me today by Bill Bakke of the Native Fish Society-

Hello All:
I am writing to provide some information about a recent fish kill in
the NF Calawah River basin. Over the past summer, James Starr and myself conducted extensive snorkel/habitat surveys over the entire NF Calawah River basin. We focused on counting all salmonids, including adults and juveniles.

With the drought this year most of the stream has gone subsurface leaving behind thousands of dead juvenile salmonids, sculpins, and almost a hundred dead adult cutthroat/whitefish. The drought is not over and pools are drying by the day so the total numbers of dead fish are still increasing. I have provided an attachment that briefly describes what we observed, including total numbers of salmonids, and estimates of dead fish.

There are also a couple points I would like to clarify, as I expect
many people would have similar questions. One, could any of the fish have escaped through migration? We estimated that the basin has currently lost 29% of the entire salmonid population. Due to the drought most of the fish were stranded in disconnected pools and there was no opportunity for juvenile/adult fish to out migrate from the reaches that have recently dried. This means that the fish we counted two and three weeks ago have not had a chance to go anywhere else, they simply died once the water went subsurface.

If the weather continues for another week or so, we are looking at wholesale losses to the entire lower 15 miles of the NF Calawah River. I estimate that all of the surface water (excepting the lower .7 miles of the stream which are still flowing) will go subterranean and that we may lose as much as 80% of all coastal cutthroat and 65-80% of all salmonids currently inhabiting the river. To make matters worse the NF Calawah only has a few small tributaries, and those tributaries (excepting Pistol Creek which only has a short anadromous reach) are also dry so there are not any places for the fish to seek refugia.

Please read over the attachment and feel free to contact me with any questions or requests. There is simply too much information to put onto paper right now but I hope this brief write up helps people understand how severely our juvenile salmonids have been impacted during this summer/fall drought.

My last trip up the NF two days ago left me with a pit in my stomach, the stench from piles of sculpins, hundreds of them, and rotting matts of juvenile salmonids by the thousands. The birds are doing well and recent conversations with other scientists make me wonder about the nutrient cycling of these dead creatures and the recolonization of the stream this winter. In addition all of the caddis and mayflies that are hatching do not have any water in which to lay their eggs so that is something else to consider. I also thought of hyporheic migration for the juvenile fish, but after digging down up to three feet in the river channel there was no water in sight so the streambed is dry in the upper most substrate.I wish you all the best.

John McMillan
Salmonid Ecologist
Wild Salmon Center

10-31-2002, 11:09 PM
Could you please forward to me the attachment that Bob was reffering to in his post on PP?


11-02-2002, 01:01 AM
FYI, Comments from the author regarding the above post-

Hello All:

My name is John McMillan and I am the biologist who sent out the memo concerning the fish kill in the NF Calawah River. I see that only my email message was posted, and not the attachment with the description, observations, and numbers of fish found in the system.

Also, hello ltlcleo I do remember you from both our meetings, it is good to hear you are concerned. From our brief meetings I came away with a feeling that you are very sincere in your concern about wild fish.

I must admit that this is the first time I have ever posted on one of the fishing bulletin boards, and make clear that I am only here to provide information on this topic. I would especially like to clarify the situation and then respond to the discussion between Pat Graham and Bob Ball.

I will provide a brief background on my ONP work. Over the past five years I have conducted over 150 snorkel surveys in the Quileute/Hoh River basins, covering over 300 miles of stream. I spend over 300 days each year doing a mixture of fishing, snorkeling, and spawning counts. To complete these surveys I typically hike about 300-400 miles each year. I hope this provides some sense of the time and effort that I spend studying these river systems.

This summer we snorkeled the NF Calawah as part of a basin wide salmonid survey in the Calawah River basin. In total we covered almost 40 stream miles and hiked 110 miles in a wetsuit to cover these areas. As Bob mentioned, the NF Calawah is a very important tributary, especially for steelhead and coastal cutthroat.

As a scientist, conservationist, and fisherman, I empathize with the feelings of helplessness that can pervade our thoughts during times like these. Often our first reaction is to try and do whatever possible to help the stranded fish, such as transporting the fish or even digging in the channel to allow further migration. The situation on the ONP this summer/early fall is disturbing, but in most cases this is a very natural cycle.

According to precipitation records from Forks (period of record is from 1931-2002), this summer is the second driest on record, with only 6.25 inches of rain since July 1. The driest year occurred in 1987 when we only had 5.1 inches of rain over the same period of time. Going further back, I found that the ONP experienced similar droughts in 1935, 1951, 1967, 1987, and now in 2002. Roughly these summer/fall droughts (over our short period of record) seem to occur about every 20 years (which also roughly coincides with ocean pressure shifts (PDO) that also influence our coastal climate).

Most of these droughts probably ended in a similar fashion, loss of surface flow and a subsequent loss of juvenile/adult salmonids. For those who personally know the NF Calawah, we are familiar with the Tribal mythology of the stream that is related to the annual loss of surface water in the middle portion of the river. This year is an anomoly, as most of the lower river has gone dry. However, according to precip. records these droughts have occurred in the past and I am fairly sure the stream lost a significant portion of its salmonid population each time, yet the stream recovered.

Personally, I believe that when nature takes a course that it is best to leave nature to work itself out. In this case, most of the fish are going to die, but the carcasses of all the dying creatures are a very important nutrient source to the stream. If we tried to truck the fish downstream, it is more than likely we are saving fish that are not suited to surviving such droughts and that could have very unitended results. The stream in the upper reaches is still flowing, and that part of the stream is not going to go dry, those juvenile fish will provide a source of recolonization for the lower part of the watershed.

My suggestion would be to let the system fluctuate naturally and allow fish to recolonize. Over generations fish can respond relatively quickly to climatic shifts and allowing these fish to die will help that process of adaptation. It is clear that humans have affected the global climate and the prolonged drought this year maybe related to the syndrome we have labeled "global warming." If our climate is shifting, then the future of salmonids, in streams like the NF Calawah, is dependent upon the fish generating a population that is best suited to surviving these types of droughts, whether that is through earlier run timing so they can get to the headwaters where the streams don't go dry or a later entry timing so that the fish don't become stranded in the drying portions of the stream.

I hope this helps. I wish you all the best.

John McMillan
Wild Salmon Center