Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Gitlin questions if there is ulterior motive for survey

A comprehensive fish counting station on the Smith River was in jeopardy of remaining closed throughout the 2012/2013 spawning season due to money woes, but thanks to new private and state funding, the station resumed operations in mid-December.

The 24-hour-a-day station started too late to count fall salmon migrating upriver to spawn, but program manager Zack Larson said the station will be able to effectively capture data for this winter's steelhead trout run by running from Dec. 14 to March 29.

"There are steelhead that come in right when the river rises, but we're going to be in the water for the peak," Larson said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

In order to officially start this round of fish counting, Del Norte County supervisors needed to approve the new funding and enter into a new contract with Zack Larson and Associates. The fish count was on the consent agenda for Tuesday's board meeting.

Newly elected supervisor Roger Gitlin pulled the item from the consent agenda and asked the fish count supporters if they had an "ulterior motive" to close the Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery.

"I'm questioning if there is another motive, another reason for this fish count, because I would like to see the Rowdy Creek fish facility continue to provide high quality service in this county and not be ultimately closed by folks with a different agenda," Gitlin said during the meeting.

Larson said the DIDSON sonar fish count program works in collaboration with Rowdy Creek hatchery's smaller fish counting program and that he has worked for and with Rowdy Creek hatchery in the past.

Supervisor Martha McClure said that the county has been pursuing an accurate fish count on the Smith River because when fishing regulations are established, state agencies use a rough estimate of fish in the Smith.

"Many of us believe that the watershed is much healthier than many times interpreted by the state of California," McClure said. "Without us having accurate data we are then vulnerable to what the state of California will determine as the fish count and therefore the DIDSON is an extremely important project."

Supervisor Gerry Hemmingsen agreed that the county often has to deal with "pseudo or voodoo science" and that the DIDSON station provides "actual counts" based on real science.

When the fish count came to a vote, Gitlin asked McClure to abstain from voting because she is Zack Larson's aunt, and she did so.

With Hemmingsen and Supervisor Mike Sullivan's support, the motion still passed 2-1. Gitlin dissented, and Supervisor David Finigan was absent.

"I'm honored that you support this project and hopefully we can place it in other rivers nearby to see what we really have coming back," Larson told the board.

The Smith is the only large river system in the state to use the state-of-the-art sonar technology pioneered by Alaska state agencies.

The sonar fish counter was employed on the Smith River for the past two winters as a pilot program, and although it was expected to continue last fall, a change in the Department of Fish and Game's administrative compensation derailed the program for this season until new funding was found.

The Resource Legacy Fund Foundation provided a $10,000 grant. Another $15,000 came from the North American Salmon Stronghold Partnership through Wild Salmon Center. Seeing private funding interest, the Department of Fish and Game approved $34,670 in funding from the CA Steelhead Catch Report Restoration Program. The Smith River Alliance also raised money for the project.

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