GEYSERVILLE -- It may sound strange, but hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction costs could depend on a very prosaic yet heretofore rarely studied question: just how high can young, endangered salmon jump?
It’s mostly adult salmon that have been observed jumping in the wild, but knowing with some reliability how high baby salmon can leap under a variety of conditions could help determine how communities can better build roads, bridges, culverts and anything else in waterways so they don’t block the fish from jumping as they swim upstream, and thereby enhance survival rates.
“There are lot of people throughout the country who are interested in this sort of thing and there’s not a lot of people doing work on it,” said Ben White, a fisheries biologist for the Corps’ San Francisco District who is taking part in an in-depth, multi-agency study of the jumping abilities of young salmon and steelhead here at the Corps-owned Don Clausen Fish Hatchery. “From a monetary standpoint, that’s important because it affects your construction costs but just from a fisheries standpoint, it’s important because it tells us what these fish are able to do,” a subject that conservationists, he says, have not spent much time studying until now.
This facility in the heart of Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley is the setting for the study, known as the Juvenile Salmon Vertical Leap Test, in which conditions in the wild are simulated by requiring baby salmon of different sizes in different water conditions to swim upstream and jump over barriers of different heights. “At a bare minimum, it will at least shed some light on what these fish are able to do and at what height and temperature,” said White, “If we’re re-establishing standards and criteria for fish passage projects, that’s a really big deal in the fisheries world.”
Lead researcher David K. White of the National Marine Fisheries Service predicts reliable results from the study will not only raise salmon populations, but could also save millions of dollars in construction costs. “We’re trying to find that sweet spot between how can we provide the most benefit for the fish without being too expensive, so that we can design the most reasonable fish passage structures as possible and therefore enhance survivability.”
The Corps’ Ben White says the project is drawing attention from conservationists around the country and has the potential to be very influential in determining ways to ensure the survivability of salmon. “A lot of fisheries groups from here all the way up the Pacific Northwest to Alaska are going to be interested in the results of this study. I think we are definitely at the forefront of this sort of research.”