Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Documenting Fish and Habitat Trends with King County

Issaquah Creek
Over the past three summers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has worked on a field project with King County to survey habitat and fish populations in streams that feed into Lake Washington, a large lake in Seattle, WA. The main objective of this work is to assess and monitor habitats essential to Chinook salmon, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The work is also part of a larger effort to monitor Chinook salmon habitat throughout the state of Washington by the Washington Department of Ecology. In addition to King County and USFWS, 27 other local government organizations have assisted in this project.

Collecting fish samples
This year's work team consisted of three King County employees and five USFWS employees. Four of the USFWS employees were students from The Evergreen State College, Eastern Washington University, and Oregon State University. We spent 4 days each week in July and August at various streams and creeks either collecting fish with electrofishing equipment or helping with habitat measurements. The primary fish species encountered during our surveys included cutthroat trout, juvenile coho salmon, and five species of sculpin. Fifty sites were completed in 2011 and each site will be resurveyed in 2012 and 2013. By repeating these surveys in future years, we will be able to determine whether fish communities and their habitats change over time as habitat restoration work is implemented to benefit Chinook salmon in the Puget Sound region.

Cutthroat trout collected during survey

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My Life Aquatic 2011 - It's a Wrap!

As we finish up the last few days of work here at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I can hardly believe all the amazing experiences this job has given me in just 2-1/2 months. Before starting this job, I had almost no experience working with kids and no strong desire to do so and was a bit nervous about the Youth Fisheries Academy camps. However, when the time came, I was surprised at how easily I related to the kids and was able to teach them something that I had just learned only 2 weeks earlier. Time and time again I was impressed and inspired by their enthusiasm, open minds, positive attitudes, and cleverness. I got fantastic reviews from the campers (as we all did) and made close connections with several of them. The great teachers in my life were so important to me and I could tell that I really left an impression on many young minds, just as they did on mine. I will definitely consider and even seek out education and outreach positions in the future after seeing just how big a difference these types of programs make and after experiencing the rewards that come from working with young people.

I didn’t have any experience in fisheries work before this job either, so all of the field opportunities were new and fantastic. Activities such as electrofishing, freshwater mussel surveys, and stream sampling revealed that there is so much more life in our streams than we can possibly imagine by just peering at them. Being involved in field research like this, along with assisting with screw traps, the Elwha fishing weir, and extraction of coded-wire tags, was very exciting. It was great to be a part of the teams that collect the data that is used in so many different ways to practice conservation. Not only is this work incredibly important, it’s incredibly fun! Getting out into nature and exploring its workings firsthand is very enlightening and certainly something I want to do a lot of in the future.

I have two more years of college left and I plan on earning both a BS and BA degree when I graduate with a focus on environmental science and ecology. I want to get as much diverse experience in my field during and after that time and also plan on going to graduate school and earning a Ph.D. My experience with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been nothing short of extraordinary and has provided me with many unique opportunities that are hard to find while in college. I got a great education in stream ecology and ichthyology, loads of professional experience, and an "in" with an agency that I would definitely consider working for as a career. I hope that programs like this one and the Youth Fisheries Academy continue and grow because they are invaluable to those involved with them.

-- Claire Wood, STEP Fisheries Technician

Friday, October 14, 2011

My Life Aquatic 2011 - Reflections on a Summer Well Spent

With only a couple days left in my summer position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), I am feeling distinctly bittersweet. It has been an outstanding, exciting, informative and valuable summer. I am sad to say goodbye to all of the wonderful people I have worked with and the fun projects I have worked on. At the same time, I am excited to return to Fairhaven College for my second year to continue my focus on science and education and explore the many opportunities to come. When I started this position, I had hoped to learn more about both field biology and education and perhaps come closer to making a decision about the direction of my education. While I am still officially undecided, I do know that I would like to continue with field and education outreach work. They were challenging, fun and rewarding aspects of my summer position and I enjoyed them both for different reasons.

One of the most beneficial activities Tree, Claire and I took part in this summer was a resume workshop lead by our supervisor. We have been working on updating and re-writing our resumes, including new work experience we’ve gained over the summer and learning more about the appropriate format and structure for this line of work. It’s amazing to see the difference in my resume after this summer; I’ve had the opportunity to do some fantastic things and I’m so glad I got the chance to brainstorm and write about them while they were still fresh in my mind. The finished product is a nicely polished, scientifically focused and diversified resume that I will definitely be using in the future.

Next quarter at Fairhaven I’m taking some really exciting science classes, including an Ornithology and Eco-Restoration class. I’ve never studied ornithology before and I’m looking forward to learning more about bird species of the Northwest. One of the really great things about Fairhaven is that I have the option to design my own concentration or major, so I could potentially create a major combining education and science. Whatever path I choose to meander down in the future, I know that the experience this STEP position has given me will be extremely valuable and useful in continuing to explore my educational interests and career opportunities!

I hope you have enjoyed hearing from Claire, Tree and me this summer and have learned a little about the STEP program and the USFWS. Thanks so much for reading!

--Mara Healy, STEP Fisheries Technician


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Life Aquatic 2011 - Life after the Youth Fisheries Academy - Freshwater Mussel Surveys

After the last of the Youth Fisheries Academy day camps, Claire, Tree and I transitioned to working on various field projects. It has been great fun to get outside and help with a large variety of projects--electrofishing, installation of the Elwha River fish weir, and river surveys for freshwater mussels just to name a few. We have been mostly helping with a freshwater mussel survey project led by Teal Waterstrat, another STEP student, so I will tell you a little bit more about why we’re looking for these invertebrates and our experiences in the field! 

Looking for freshwater mussels
Freshwater mussels are very elusive creatures that live in the bottom of healthy river and lake systems. They are not very mobile, so their life cycle includes a larval stage that requires a host fish as a means of dispersal. The Western Pearlshell mussel, for example, has larvae that cling to trout and salmon for transport. Another interesting fact about the Western Pearlshell mussel is that its lifespan can exceed 100 years in healthy rivers! Wherever they occur, freshwater mussels play very important roles--they help cycle nutrients, maintain water clarity, and are a food source for several animals (river otters, muskrats, skunks, raccoons, etc). There are close to 300 species of freshwater mussels in all of North America and most (about three quarters) are in major decline due to pollution and habitat disturbances.

Snorkel survey in the Chehalis River
We waded and snorkeled streams in the Chehalis River watershed with the hopes of getting a general idea of if--and where--mussels are living and what types of mussels are present. Discovering the numbers and locations of freshwater mussels is an important goal for a couple of reasons. Firstly, freshwater mussels are an indicator species. This means that their presence or absence can tell us a lot about the long-term health of a river because they are unable to survive or flourish in systems that are heavily disrupted or polluted. Secondly, we’re conducting these surveys because the mussel population is not well documented in the Chehalis River basin. Teal has done a lot of research and discovered where freshwater mussels have been found in the past and then coordinated surveys of those areas.

Still looking . . .
This has been exciting work since I had never seen a freshwater mussel before taking part in these surveys. After completing the training and practice, this now makes perfect sense--freshwater mussels look just like rocks! So taking that into consideration, we developed a few strategies for increasing our chances of seeing freshwater mussels during the surveys including using polarized sunglasses, sub-surface viewing tools called aquascopes, and training in areas with healthy mussel populations in order to develop a clear search image. Claire, Tree, and I have been mostly wading in rivers and using aquascopes to look for mussels. While not terribly fruitful, it has been quite enjoyable!

As this project continues and expands, we will be able to form an idea of the health of the rivers we are surveying based on what we find (or don’t find). These findings will, in turn, give us very important information about what sort of management, conservation, and restoration practices would be most beneficial for the Chehalis River basin.

--Mara Healy, STEP Fisheries Technician