Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

County couldn't make up for cut in Dept. of Fish and Game support

A state-of-the-art sonar fish counting station on the Smith River was supposed to start its third season Monday. Instead, the sonars will be dry, sitting in storage after the project lost funding for the season.

For the past two years, a modest shack overlooking the Smith River at the Fred Haight boat launch housed electronics and people patiently counting fish.

The counting, accomplished with two sonars, several computers and five employees working 24 hours a day, was the first comprehensive monitoring project ever attempted on the Smith River.

The California Department of Fish and Game funded a two-year pilot study to implement a sonar fish counting project for just under $435,000.

Zack Larson, the sub-contractor for the project, lamented the loss of the data that won't be collected this year to the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

After speaking with DFG officials, Larson said his understanding was that the program would be extended for a third year. But because Del Norte County staff couldn't cover for a cut in overhead expenses in DFG funding, the sonar missed out on this year's highly-competitive Fisheries Restoration Grant Program funding.

DFG gave the county roughly $25,000 to administer the project for the first two years, covering expenses to pay for grant administration, payroll, billing and reporting back to fish and game, said County Administrative Officer Jay Sarina.

For the third year extension, DFG offered only $1,500 for administrative costs, which "doesn't come close to meeting the expenses," Sarina said.

Through conversations with DFG officials, Sarina said, "they indicated that it was a new policy that was implemented and they would not be paying any admin costs when they said it was essentially pass-through money."

DFG officials could not be reached for comment regarding the internal policy or the project.

The data could be even more important this year considering the banner season for ocean salmon fishing off the California coast, Larson said.

"It's a shame to lose that information, and we also lose about four or five jobs because of it," Larson said at the meeting.

Although Larson said he's been speaking with other organizations to fund sonar counting for steelhead trout, which spawn later in the season, now is the time to start counting chinook salmon.

"It's important to catch that first rain," Larson told the board, emphasizing the importance of an Oct. 1 start date. "Last year we had 6,000 fish in the first two weeks; you never know what you miss when that river comes up."

Smith River Alliance is one of the groups considering kicking in funds to get the sonars in the water at least for the steelhead trout season.

"In order to protect and manage a fishery - you need to know how many fish you have. It's that simple," said SRA executive director Grant Werschkull.

The sonar fish counter was used to track 32,320 adult fish migrating upstream last year.

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