Counting on the Smith

Written by Adam Spencer, The Triplicate August 27, 2012 06:12 pm

Volunteers help tally river’s fish

Del Norte Triplicate/Adam Spencer  Volunteer divers swim in lanes near Rock Creek Ranch on the South Fork of Smith River to survey fish populations in the 2012 Smith River fish count.
Del Norte Triplicate/Adam Spencer Volunteer divers swim in lanes near Rock Creek Ranch on the South Fork of Smith River to survey fish populations in the 2012 Smith River fish count.
The crystal clear waters of the Smith River provide the perfect setting for frogmen-like volunteers to carefully count fish.

Last weekend’s 2012 Smith River Fish Count, sponsored by Smith River Alliance, inspired a record 56 volunteers to get encased in wetsuits and don snorkel gear to assess the watershed’s condition by taking a census of adult fish spread across 34 miles of river.

“I spend a lot of time rushing to get to the river to escape my dim, dark cubicle in dim, dark Crescent City, and I’m interested in knowing more about the fish in the river,” said Laura Jo Welter, of Crescent City.

Dozens of fish and river scientists are familiar faces to the count, but Welter is one of several locals who came to her first count this year to get more familiar with the river in her back yard. 

“Since I’ve come to enjoy the  Smith for pleasure, anything I can do to help maintain its health is a good thing,” she said.

One of the first steps to maintaining watersheds is collecting data, sometimes through “direct observation” surveys like the fish count.

Each team of three to four snorkelers is given a section of river to survey. The team lines up shoulder-to-shoulder from one bank to the other working in lanes. They slowly swim downstream,  only counting the fish in their lane to avoid double-counting. The people on the side are responsible for diving below the surface to look under rock shelves and woody debris while a partner watches for any fish that swim away scared from the diver.

“You really have to sneak up on these fish. It’s like hunting,” said Rachel McCain, volunteer director of the fish count for the past three years.

The most common fish species  seen in the summertime are coastal cutthroat trout, which are designated as a species of “special concern” in California, but are healthy and abundant in the Smith.

“Cutthroat trout are an indicator species, which means you can tell a lot about the health of the watershed just by monitoring them, because they’re eating fish, which are eating bugs, which are eating algae,” McCain said. “So if there are enough fish for cutthroat to eat, there’s enough for the smaller fish, bugs and algae to eat.”

Rachel McCain’s father, Mike McCain, a fisheries biologist for Six Rivers National Forest, conducted much of the Forest Service’s intermittent surveying done on the Smith from 1989 to 1999. The volunteer fish count now run by his daughter follows particular protocol so the data can be used by the Forest Service.

During a training day on the South Fork, Mike McCain showed volunteers the safest and most effective way to approach riffles and drops in the river without missing any fish. It’s important to carefully look under the “bubble curtain” of a riffle where many fish like to hang out.

Another key spot is near the mouths of small creeks and streams where the water is colder.

“The Smith River is cold; that’s why we have so many fish,” Rachel McCain said.

Volunteers are trained to only count adult fish — no fish with “parr marks,” which are faint, oval-shaped markings that are only on juvenile fish.

During the training Andrea Collins, fisheries biologist with Six Rivers National Forest, asked volunteers to take a look at several sections of PVC pipe lying on the river bottom to train their eyes on what a 12-inch length looks like underwater. 

Volunteers are asked to classify the fish species and the size: 7-12 inches or 12+.

A common technique is to look at a rock or stick underwater near the fish being counted to judge the length and then swim down and measure the rock or stick with your hand or arm. Volunteers measure their hand and forearm spans before getting in the water in order to have something to measure by.

Collins told the volunteers that if they see any salmon or steelhead, it won’t be for very long.

“The salmon and steelhead are coming from the ocean so you’re going to really scare them, they’re going to think you’re a shark or something,” Collins said.

The count found an average of 53 trout per mile on 19.1 miles of the South Fork- -—  higher than last year’s average of 42. At 25 trout per mile, the Middle Fork’s count was slightly below last year’s count of 30 on a 13.7-mile stretch.  There was also a survey of 1.2 miles of the North Fork. Suckers, steelhead and Chinook salmon were also counted, but they are not seen in high numbers during the summer. 

The California Department of Fish and Game’s Wild Trout and Heritage program conducted a concurrent fish count on 14.5 miles of the main stem of the Smith River.

“We wanted to come in and supplement their data,” said Sam Plemons, environmental scientists with the Wild Trout and Heritage program. “There’s not a lot of information out there about cutthroat and that’s one of our goals is to promote the collection of more data.”

Clemons said that Fish and Game doesn’t have any aspirations to change the Smith River, because its already in great condition, but more data will help maintain the status quo.

“To get more people interested in the Smith River and stakeholders on our side, the more power we have to keep it the way it is,” Clemons said, adding that he enjoys any reason to be on the Smith. “What can you say about the Smith? Its probably the most beautiful river in the state.”

The count was hosted at Rock Creek Ranch on the South Fork of the Smith River. Local food for the after-count potluck was provided by Ocean Air Farms and local brew for adult counters came from Ferment Del Norte.

Reach Adam Spencer at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it