State, federal and tribal biologists collaborate for 5-day “riverscape” bull trout snorkel survey of the Dungeness River basin

Photo courtesy of Shreffler Environmental.

Earlier this fall, WDFW teamed up with the National Park Service, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and others to snorkel 23 river miles of the Dungeness and Gray Wolf rivers, marking the first time the state has led this level of “riverscape” survey to gather detailed fish counts and habitat data across an entire basin.

Part of a larger effort to increase our knowledge about bull trout abundance and distribution on the Olympic Peninsula, the project spanned all waters of the Dungeness and Gray Wolf Rivers that anadromous fish, or fish that migrate out to sea and return to freshwater rivers, have access to.

Snorkel surveyors, which included more than 20 biologists from WDFW, tribal, federal agencies, and Shreffler Environmental, tallied 133 bull trout, 8,484 rainbow and cutthroat trout, 390 Chinook salmon, two steelhead, three sockeye, numerous juvenile fish, and a whopping 85,339 pink salmon across the basin.

“This was a phenomenal effort to expand our collective knowledge around bull trout in support of their recovery,” said Kathryn Sutton, lead fish biologist for WDFW in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. “We want to applaud our collaborators at the tribal and federal levels, which were key to this project’s success.”

“The riverscape project gave us a very unique perspective on the Dungeness River system and its inhabitants,” said Chris Burns, natural resource technician with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. “This collaborative effort is a great example of how bringing like-minded people together to work on the conservation and restoration of our natural resources can be a powerful tool. The Dungeness River will benefit greatly from these types of projects by informing us how far we have come and by identifying areas where more needs to be done to help our rivers flourish.”

Footage courtesy of Shreffler Environmental.

“Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of these riverscape surveys is the collective eyes of dedicated place-based scientists focused on a mutual goal of better understanding Olympic Peninsula rivers and fish populations,” said Samuel Brenkman, chief fisheries biologist with Olympic National Park. “We are fortunate to have such a highly specialized and collaborative group of fisheries biologists, managers, and research scientists from federal and State agencies, local Treaty Tribes, non-profits, and more.”

This latest survey builds on an effort that the National Park Service, US Geological Survey, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have led over the last decade to create an “Atlas of Riverscapes” from major rivers draining from Olympic National Park. Since 2009, the partners have completed headwaters to tidewaters surveys in nine different Olympic Peninsula wilderness rivers totaling more than 400 miles. The riverscape surveys require detailed logistical planning in remote terrain, care and safety in moving through remote sections of river and canyons, and physical endurance.

Bull trout are listed as “threatened” by the federal Endangered Species Act. These fish are top predators and thrive in cold, relatively pristine waters. Once widely present throughout their range in the Pacific Northwest, bull trout are now limited to small, fragmented populations. Primary threats to this species include habitat loss, poor water quality, past fishing regulations, and effects of climate change.

“With numerous recovery and fishery priorities in the coastal region, data gaps associated with bull trout have been difficult to address,” said James Losee, regional fish program manager. “Collaborative effort is what it takes to complete a project of this scale and we are pleased with the results.”

Data gathered from this project will inform WDFW fishery managers about the Dungeness River bull trout population status. Baseline information about abundance and distribution will allow biologists to monitor changes in the population over time and respond with well-designed recovery efforts, structuring sustainable fisheries for the future.

Snorkel surveys are just one part of how WDFW fishery managers monitor fish populations throughout the year as part of the state’s effort to support sound fisheries management. To learn more about WDFW’s fisheries management efforts, visit our website: wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/management.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.