From a team of researchers huddled over their work on a pebbly beach in Alaska, an observer can hear this tally:
“Juvenile shiner perch. 45. Coho salmon at 64. Stickleback. 57.”
They’ve just waded waist-deep to skim the waters with a fine-meshed seine net. Their goal is to sample the fish life found in the shallows of Klawock Lagoon. Now they’re identifying fish and measuring each, in millimeters.
As the team works, the fish species list grows: Kelp greenling. Buffalo sculpin. Crescent gunnel. Each is a forage fish with a specific niche in the estuary’s food web.
The work has a clear purpose: They’re watching how nature rebounds.
Restoring Habitat for Fish – for People
Klawock Lagoon is the site of a restored fish migration corridor, in a place where nature runs on salmon. Wild salmon are incredibly important to people, too. The value of the salmon subsistence fishing tradition for food among the region’s Native people is simply beyond measure. The region’s economy runs on salmon, too: Southeast Alaska salmon runs are valued at $1 billion annually.
The problem that drew our attention to Klawock Lagoon dates back to 1964. That’s when highway crews built a road across a tidal fish passage. The fix required putting a 100-foot-long concrete culvert under the highway. Now after nearly 50 years, thanks to the efforts of a diverse partnership, this tidal channel is flowing free once again.
This is one of many Conservancy fish habitat restoration projects underway in Alaska’s Tongass. It’s a fishy place: The Tongass National Forest, which encompasses 70 percent of Southeast Alaska’s land base, is home to 17,000 miles of salmon streams.
Taking care of salmon habitat means the salmon will be there to help take care of people who live in the communities of Southeast Alaska.
A Restored Fish Passage
The members of this day’s monitoring team, from The Nature Conservancy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have already witnessed the return of spawning salmon in the restored channel. Underwater video cameras have captured tens of thousands of salmon fry migrating out to sea. (As well as a surprise cameo by a river otter.)
“Salmon are now migrating through this restored corridor in the Klawock Lagoon, and this is great news. Our ongoing focus is long-term monitoring of fish populations and their habitats,” says Christine Woll, a Conservancy fisheries ecologist.
“Our monitoring is important because it ensures that our actions achieve their intended results. Monitoring of the salmon use of this culvert and their habitat not only contributes to the understanding of the health of this system, but also allows us to make more informed decisions regarding other potential restoration actions – in Klawock, and elsewhere in Southeast Alaska,” Woll says.
Over time, scientists expect the new surge of saltwater to restore the natural salinity levels to the lagoon. This benefits a crucial habitat for young fish: eelgrass. These beds of eelgrass need saline water, and as conditions for its growth improves, eelgrass beds could expand to their original size.
“These lush nurseries harbor young salmon and other fish, so they’re essential for a healthy fishery,” Woll says. “The prognosis for the fish habitat in Klawock Lagoon is encouraging.”
Klawock Lagoon, at the site of the village of Klawock, is part of a 29,000-acre watershed that has supported a subsistence fishing tradition for thousands of years. Klawock Lake and Klawock River and its tributaries have long been known as a healthy sockeye salmon fishery, but returns have declined in recent decades. The lagoon serves as important rearing habitat for fish that spawn in the basin’s 132 miles of streams.
The Klawock system supports pink, chum, coho and sockeye salmon, as well as steelhead, cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden char. Sockeye salmon harvests of more than 30,000 fish were typical from the late 1880s through the 1950s. Since 1960, fish counts have seldom exceeded 20,000 sockeye and reached only 10,000 fish in six of the past 50 years. Similarly dramatic declines occurred for pink salmon and chum salmon in the latter half of the 20th century.
Scientists say a number of factors may be contributing to the observed decline. These include logging in the basin’s headwaters and weather patterns. Biologists believe that by restoring this piece of the Klawock Lagoon, the larger system will be more resilient to a range of pressures on fish and their habitat.