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Heavy rain hampers salmon surveys: Fish eggs in creeks in jeopardy

Daily News Staff Writer

Recent rains in southern Southeast Alaska saved the day for salmon, the pinks in particular — at least initially.

After a summer dry spell that left some salmon floundering, the recent bout of unseasonably hard rains in the Ketchikan area might have delivered too much water to area creeks and streams for the spawning fish, their delicate eggs and biologists keeping tabs.

The turbulent weather, meanwhile, has grounded aerial salmon surveys, leading to more conservative commercial harvest openings as seine fishing in the region typically begins to peak during the summer season.

Earlier this month, temperatures in Ketchikan topped at a balmy 82 degrees during the first 10 rainless days of August, zapping area waterways. That occurred most notably at Prince of Wales Island, where some streams dried completely. Low or no freshwater levels prevent salmon from driving upstream to spawn.

A trace amount of rain fell Aug. 11 at the Ketchikan International Airport, offering initial hope that the tides had turned for the fish.

The morsel of precipitation, however, ultimately led to nearly 20 inches rain so far this month, nearly half of which dropped during the past week alone, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Measured at the Ketchikan International Airport, some 10 inches of rain fell Monday and Tuesday.

The resulting deluge blew out a large culvert beneath North Tongass Highway, flooded the Ward Lake Recreation Area and caused Ketchikan Creek to swell to near flooding levels, among other localized issues.

Early-August rainfall initially came as a reprieve for Ketchikan-based Alaska Department of Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Scott Walker.

But the storms didn’t stop, until a fleeting burst of sunlight appeared late Tuesday. A series of calmer rain storms lasted through Friday.

“It kept on coming and kept on coming, so we're at the point where we basically had an August flood event, and we never quite know if that's a negative thing or a positive thing,” Walker said Wednesday of the storms earlier in the week.

Ketchikan Creek rose just shy of its flood stage Tuesday at Ketchikan Lakes dam, roaring downstream to its confluence with marine waters at Thomas Basis, debris likely in tow.

"When you have a lot of water moving boulders and rocks and trees and all of that down a creek,” he said, “you can displace the salmon eggs. We call it scouring, so it can basically scour the bottom (of a stream) to the point where all the eggs are basically pulled out of the gravel or roll out of the gravel."

In essence, the rains were good, but too much this past week might have caused unknown damage to future salmon stocks, depending on the amount of salmon eggs that weathered the storms.

A stronger rainstorm struck Ketchikan in January 2015, causing flooding along Ketchikan Creek.

With an unusually high tide that accompanied the rains, the Stedman Street bridge looked more like a float.

Walker said the 2015 deluge not only scoured the stream, it filled the salmon ladder below the Park Avenue bridge with gravel, blocking fish from easily moving upstream.

"So, basically, you know, who knows how many tons of material were moved out of that creek and moved downstream,” Walker said. “Well, that material was full of salmon eggs, as well. So my guess is that, in portions of the stream, it was a complete loss of the salmon eggs."

"But I don't have any notion or any real way to know what that means,” he said. “I can't go down there and walk around in the creek and get any meaningful information."

Meanwhile, the turbulent weather of late has grounded the bread-and-butter of managing state fisheries: aerial surveys.

Walker said Wednesday that his office hasn’t been able to gather proper fish surveys on area salmon stocks and movement for at least 10 days.

That means more conservative fishing measures for the regional commercial fleet, the largest gear group by far being purse seiners.

“For us to be able to manage this fishery, we basically are in the air all of the time, you know,” Walker said. “It takes me about five days to do a complete circuit of our area."

"If you're not able to be in the air all the time, kind of catching up and looking at the hotspots and watching these fish move around, you're getting a picture that's pretty fuzzy,” he said. “You have to rely more on catches, so you're more conservative, and you're not able to really move the fleet into an area and do more precision harvests."

The lack of adequate salmon surveys and the resulting conservative commercial harvest openings come as seine fishing typically begins to peak in each district of the Ketchikan area.

Rather than peaking, he said, catches from District 1 south of Ketchikan proved below average during the most recent set of commercial openings, as was the case for adjacent District 2, which was drastically below average, and the District 4 outer waters west of Prince of Wales Island.

The inner waters west of Prince of Wales Island, District 3, became the only area to show above-average catches and fishing effort.