The Upper Feather River Basin-wide Native Fish Assessment and Improvement Strategy group held a community engagement meeting at the Almanor Recreation Center in Chester on Tuesday, Dec 20.
As part of a collaborative effort by the Feather River chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, and the U.S. Forest Service, the aim of the conference was to describe past and current distribution of fish and stream conditions in the upper Feather River basin, and the need to raise community awareness and support to improve and restore those fisheries.
Experienced anglers at the gathering were asked to provide feedback on prioritizing areas for fishery restoration within the watershed above Lake Oroville.
Vincent Rogers, community coordination fellow for Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, asked the anglers in attendance what concerns they had regarding which fisheries should “forever be protected from encroachment or are presently in need of restoration.”
He said the Sierra Institute’s program is a new rural mountain community initiative that seeks to address specific ecological issues, in this case protection of area fisheries, which are managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Rogers said together the various agencies focus on education, volunteer monitoring of fishery habitats, restoration and conservation work, reintroduction of native fish populations and facilitating opportunities to underserved groups such as school children or people with disabilities who don’t always have a chance to go out and fish.
The Upper Feather River assessment project was prompted by a long history of declining fisheries throughout the watershed, he noted, because of such factors as industry and the expansion of roadways to serve growing populations, timber harvests and mining, hydroelectric development, and the end of fish migration after the completion of Lake Oroville reservoir.
Rogers said that nearly 150 miles of migrating fish habitat has completely disappeared, with hundreds of miles of streams severely degraded over the preceding decades.
He said that within the basin there’s been a lot of survey work conducted by Trout Unlimited, the Sierra Institute and others, but with little coordinated data sharing between agencies, particularly in population monitoring and the long-term health of fisheries.
Although Rogers said there has been a lot of restoration effort and investment in the past, such efforts have been employed in an ad hoc fashion, advancing projects here and there where it’s needed, but “perhaps not with a lot of coordinated strategizing.”
Some of the funding needed for restoration purposes could come from the Integrated Regional Water Management plan, Rogers said, which provides a mechanism for the county to receive Proposition 1 funding once county officials identify where money for projects are needed, and as long as a request for funding meets the criterion set forth by IRWM.
The goals of the agencies mentioned are to “prioritize where we should be focusing our efforts in the Feather River basin” in accordance with the mission of conservation and restoration of fishery ecosystems.
“Our approach is to establish goals consisting of three components: to find out where native trout populations were distributed historically, what the natural conditions were like and how have those conditions changed,” he said, including work done recording where competitive species were introduced into the streams.
Once all the data is compiled, “we can decide where investment should be occurring to enhance the fisheries, with particular focus on native fish species,” Rogers said.
To establish an historic reference, Rogers said he’s been involved in researching records from forest service offices, and from information gathered from Fish and Wildlife to find reliable histories on as many fisheries as he could, and then mapping his findings.
In addition, the process involves interviewing local fishermen who have been long-time residents, Rogers remarked, some of whom have been fishing the region’s waterways their whole life, “and learning from them anecdotal information on areas that official agencies were not surveying,” to better inform him where particular fish species were found in the past.
Through Rogers’ work and the efforts of many others, he said they were beginning to create an overview on how fish populations moved throughout the waterways over the years, and could identify negative impacts, as well as gauge how successful resilient populations endured changing environmental conditions, both natural and manmade.
To further that end, “We’re currently using a new high-tech sampling technique that looks at DNA suspended in the water column from a variety of fish,” and by looking at genetic markers, “We’re able to determine which species are present in the water. … It’s really efficient, we can do a huge number of samples in a relatively short time.”
So far, Roger said they’ve sampled at least 70 sites that they think are of the most concern regarding native fish habitats for rainbow, brown and brook trout, and also recorded the DNA signatures of introduced fish competitors and possible interlopers, including mollusks.
“Most importantly,” Rogers continued, “we want to know where key lethal pathogens are. The presence of a microscopic pathogen can destroy a fishery,” adding that pathogens are difficult to control.
Rogers encourages members of the community and local anglers to contact him if they have questions or can provide relevant information regarding their experiences fishing the waterways in the upper Feather River basin.
He can be contacted at 218-4900; or via email [email protected].
“We want a fairly informed strategy that will help us accomplish the conservation goals of preservation, reconnection of migratory waterways and restoration of habitat for native fish,” said Rogers.