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Trying To Bring Back A Wild Spring Chinook Run Above Cougar Dam

Angela Kellner
The long-term goal of this project is to get a sustainable run of wild Spring Chinook established above Cougar Dam.

Behind Cougar Dam on the reservoir is a new project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It’s a Portable Floating Fish Collector, or PFFC. It's about the size of a tennis court. It's moored in place, but can be moved around the body of water to find the sweet spot. After a two-year trial run, it will be disassembled, loaded onto trucks and taken to either Lookout Point or Detroit Reservoir.

Credit Angela Kellner
Army Corps Fish Biologist Greg Taylor takes a boat out to the PFFC - Portable Floating Fish Collector on Cougar Reservoir.

Greg Taylor: "My name is Greg Taylor, I'm a fish biologist for the Corps of Engineers at the Willamette Valley project. We operate a number of fish facilities at the dams and then we've got this brand new facility that we're bringing on line here at Cougar Reservoir.

Credit Angela Kellner
Cougar Dam and Lake is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood mitigation, hydro-power, recreation and trying to build a sustainable wild Chinook Salmon run on the South Fork of the McKenzie River in the Willamette Basin.

The long-term goal of this project is to get a sustainable run of wild Spring Chinook established above Cougar Dam. The Portable Floating Fish Collector that we're working with today captures juvenile fish in the reservoir so that we can transport them safely downstream.

Credit Angela Kellner
Cougar Dam blocks the natural migration of fish, including wild Chinook Salmon, which is on the Endangered Species List.

Shortly after the dam went in place, they were evaluating whether they could establish a run of fish above the dam and it didn't work for a number of reasons. We had temperature issues associated with the dam. So the trap and haul and the downstream passage systems that we had just didn't work so at that time they made a decision to produce hatchery fish in mitigation for the old system that was in place. We've got fish listed on the Endangered Species Act. There's an emphasis on wild fish and wild fish production and so this project is really trying to move towards getting those wild fish reestablished above the dam.

Credit Angela Kellner
Water flows through the bottom of the PFFC - Portable Floating Fish Collector, hopefully bringing fish into the collection box.

It's sort of a stationary fish vacuum. We've got water being pulled into the throat and then fish go over this velocity barrier and then get caught in a little trap down there and then we'll be able to bring the fish up and then we process them and transport them downstream.

Reporter: "And then how would they get back up when they're migrating?"

Taylor: "Yeah, when they're adults, they'll come to the base of the dam again. And then we have an adult fish collection facility down there where they're processed and then we load them on to trucks and transport them and release them at the head of the reservoir."

Reporter: "So this has been fishing for about a week or so. How many fish have you collected?"

Credit Angela Kellner
A newly-hatched juvenile wild Chinook Salmon has been caught by the PFFC - Portalble Floating Fish Collector. It will be transported to the bottom of Cougar Dam and released to continue its migration.

Taylor: "We're catching small numbers of fish so far. We've been averaging between five and ten juvenile fish a day. This is a prototype, it's a much smaller version of what might be a permanent feature down the road so it's kind of experimental in nature. But it's good that it's catching fish and we're starting to learn a lot about how the fish are interacting with the reservoir and our ability to actually catch them."

Credit Angela Kellner
The fish collection box catches a lot of debris as well as a variety of fish.

Andrew Janos: "Alright, coming up. Yeah, he's still swimming around. Oh, it's not even a salmon. It's a different species."

Taylor: "What is it, a Dace?"

Janos: "Yeah, it's a little Dace. A different species. D-A-C-E."

Credit Angela Kellner
A tiny Dace fish was netted along with debris on the floating fish collector.

Reporter: "And how big are they? Do you have some here on site?"

Taylor: "Yeah, we have some fish on site. Right now we have two sizes, classes. Fish that just entered the reservoir in the last month or so that are very small, about two inches in length. And then fish that have been here for about a year, that are larger, about six or seven inches in length.

Credit Angela Kellner
The hydrophones floating around the fish collector are doing 3-D mapping and gathering data on the fish in Cougar Reservoir.

So we have a number of hydrophones that are around the PFFC that are collecting data on tagged fish and what their 3-D position in the reservoir is and how it relates to the collector, and our intake tower and other locations around the reservoir. So we're trying to learn about the behavior of the fish, how they're interacting with this feature. Are they near it and maybe not liking it for some reason? Are they over by the intake tower where there's more flow? So there's lots of different questions that we're trying to answer with these tagged fish and hydrophones help us."

Reporter: "You said this is a prototype. So this type of system isn't quite used anywhere else or some version of it?"

Taylor: "There are versions of this floating surface collector around the Pacific Northwest. This is a smaller version of some of the others that are out there.

Credit Angela Kellner
The covered work area is where the fish biologists measure, tag and count the fish before transporting them downstream.

This reservoir has some unique challenges. Our flood damage reduction mission, we fluctuate this reservoir 170 feet annually to capture flood waters. That's more than anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest where people are trying to collect juvenile fish. So we're trying to learn as much as we can about this unique site and how the fish are going to interact with this site before we put a larger scale version of this same collector out here."

Reporter: "How long will that take? A year? Two years?"

Taylor: "Yeah, we're planning to operate this at this site for at least two years. After we get the numbers back and do some evaluation, there will be a decision made in the future about what gets put here permanently."

Andrew Janos: "My name is Andrew Janos and I'm a fisheries biologist for the Army Corps of Engineers, Willamette Valley Project. These fish were born at the head of the reservoir in the Upper South Fork McKenzie. And so they migrated roughly 7 miles through the reservoir and were caught in the PFFC in the last day. And today after we give you the tour, we'll transport them downstream, safely on their way so they can head down to the main stem of the McKenzie, down the Willamette to the Columbia and then the Pacific Ocean.

Credit Angela Kellner
Fish biologist Andrew Janos points out a one-year old Chinook Salmon that was born above Cougar Dam.

In this bucket here is a Chinook that was actually born last year and this is a one-year old fish. Because we'll expect migrating fish and other species of  salmonides in the reservoir to be caught in the collector year round."

Reporter: "What would you get in the winter?"

Janos: "Well in the fall and winter you'd also get some migrating Chinook as well. And there's also Rainbow Trout, Cutthroat Trout, Bull Trout. We've got some Speckled Dace in here as well."

Reporter: "So with the trout, will you do anything differently with them?"

Janos: "So we've got a different protocol as far as trout for migratory fish – salmon, bull trout – there's a whole matrix we have that we've worked out with the local biologists to kind of determine the fate of where the fish are going. Um, but as far as resident fish, trout, they'd go back to the head of the reservoir."

Angela Kellner is the KLCC host of All Things Considered and a reporter. Angela began as a KLCC volunteer in 1991 when she was in high school. While a student at Lane Community College, she was hired in 1993 for a work-study position in the KLCC Music Department and has been with the station in some role since then. Angela hosted KLCC's world music program Tropical Beat for 11 years from 1994 to 2005 and continues to fill in on a monthly basis.
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