Almost Every Northwest Angler living within 100 miles of the Columbia River or its tributaries has a weekly, if not daily, if not hourly, ritual this time of year: checking the salmon and steelhead counts passing over eight dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers—Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day, McNary, Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite. Until the mid 1990s, about the only place to find these numbers was the sports page of The Oregonian newspaper. Now, “daily” reports no longer satisfy society’s instant-info demands. Lucky for the obsessed angler, sharp-eyed human fish-counters stationed beneath the dams mean we don’t have to wait.
“Last hour I got close to 300 adults,” says 14-year veteran counter Janet Dolan, referring to the number of Chinook that passed by her Bonneville Dam viewing window during one late-August shift. “When you get to 1,300 an hour, then you’ve really got something. That’s the big leagues.”
Especially this year. By the first week of October, more than 900,000 adult Chinook had passed over Bonneville, shattering the old mark of 610,000 set in 2003, with more than a month of migration left to go.
Dolan works on the Washington side of the dam, which sits at river mile 146 about 45 minutes east of Portland, and is the first dam that fish reach on their journey up the Columbia. (There’s a second, almost identical viewing window on the Oregon side.) People have been counting fish at Bonneville ever since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished building it in 1938—fish counters, like fish ladders, being part of the government’s mitigation efforts to offset impacts on migrating salmon and steelhead.
“The hardest time to count is when the fall runs peak in September,” Dolan says. “Because we’ve got adults and jacks [immature salmon], coho and Chinook, hatchery and wild steelhead. My favorite time is late fall. You might end up with 1,000 adult Chinook, a couple hundred coho, and a couple hundred steelhead, all bombing through there in an hour.”
Quickly recognizing the different species would be difficult enough, but counters must also check each fish for an adipose fin—indicating whether it is of wild or hatchery origin. (Sadly, most runs on Columbia tributaries are made up of about 25 percent wild fish, and 75 percent hatchery fish.)
Dolan counts 15 separate categories of fish using 17 different keyboard strokes: hatchery Chinook adults, wild Chinook adults, hatchery Chinook jacks (less than 24 inches), wild Chinook jacks, hatchery coho adults, wild coho adults, hatchery coho jacks (less than 20 inches), wild coho jacks, hatchery steelhead, wild steelhead, pink salmon, chum salmon, sockeye, lamprey, shad, groups of five shad, and groups of ten shad. (Jack lengths are indicated by strips of yellow tape running down the viewing window.) And, because some fish swim past the window going upstream, then drift back past it going downstream, there are 17 more keys for subtracting.
“That’s why you can’t just pull anyone in off the street to do this,” says Dan Domina, senior scientist for Normandeau Environmental Consultants, which oversees the fish counters. “It takes a lot of focus. They know their fish really well, but their true skill lies in coming up with a method for counting large numbers of fish in a very short time and place.”
(Turns out, there’s even something of a skill to reading and interpreting fish-count numbers, which typically go down the farther upriver you go. Steelheaders interested in Snake River tribs like the Clearwater, Salmon, or Grande Ronde have learned that the odd jump in numbers between Little Goose and Lower Granite—the highest dam in the system—is caused by steelhead that overwinter in that stretch between December and March.)
Two fish counters are on duty every day, April 1 to October 31, one on each side of the river, from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., at each of the eight dams. At night, and during the winter, fish are recorded by video, then counted. Which begs the question: Why the need for humans at all? Couldn’t the fish just be filmed 24 hours a day, instead of only at night? “Sure, but someone still needs to watch the video,” Domina says. “And the visual quality isn’t nearly as good as watching it live.”
“It actually takes longer,” adds Dolan. “When you sit there counting fish on video, you can rewind it and play it back over and over. It kind of consumes you.”
Normandeau was awarded the fish-counting contract from the Corps on Jan. 1, 2013, and took over the actual counting from the State of Washington on April 1. Domina supervises 24 counters at the three lower dams (Bonneville, The Dalles, and John Day), and the company has about 53 employees in the program. Almost every major migratory river on the continent has some sort of weir to tally its anadromous fish returns, but most of these operations don’t provide the public anything but daily numbers, and sometimes those numbers aren’t available for weeks, if ever.
“It’s unique around the region that these visual counts are instantaneous,” says Domina. “They get put on the Web right away. A lot of these other facilities don’t have 16 fish ladders to deal with, so they’ll do video counts and wait a few days to put numbers up. But the public nowadays wants this information immediately, on their smartphone.”
As hard as counting at Bonneville may be, especially during peak migration, Domina says there is one advantage that Columbia-based counters have over those working at other operations along Oregon’s Willamette River.
“Here, we’re just counting,” he says. “At some facilities, like on the North Santiam or the Clackamas, you also have to sort. There will be a collection area for the adults, with five or six watered-up tubes going down to four different trucks—‘these fish go upriver, these fish go downriver, these go to a holding pool, these go to a hatchery’—it’s like a mailroom.”
Domina has worked as a fish biologist for more than 20 years, including stints with the utility Portland General Electric, and four years with Oregon Fish and Wildlife. He’s even done a bit of Bonneville fish-counting himself.
“I’ve tried, but panic sets in,” he says. “The fish that come in big groups, with three species mixed in and hiding behind each other, are too much for me. Our protocol for accuracy is to be within five percent for salmon and steelhead, and within 15 percent for shad. So it’s a much better idea to let Janet do it.”