I think I’ll call March “emergence month.” As I made my way back home after our first annual Family Fish Camp event held on the north Oregon coast, I can’t help but look with wonder upon the shores of Tillamook Bay and think of a fish use study I helped gather data for nearly 20 years ago.
March was one of the first months that we surveyed the bay. With our fyke nets anchored, seine nets deployed and even trawl gear working the Ghost Hole, we found an incredible amount of aquatic life forms that most anglers, let along Oregonians, have no idea ply the waters of our coastal estuaries. Of course what I found most interesting, in my own sort of snobbish way, was the juvenile, and an occasional adult, salmonid making a way of life in this critical habitat.
What made up the most biomass in this estuary in March, April and May? Chum fry! They were the prey species for many other fishes this time of year, and we found them by the clouds in March. What was most astonishing was the other salmonids we found amongst them this time of year; sub-adult cutthroat trout and even steelhead!
It was just another lesson in the ever dynamic life-cycle of our salmonids. We found abundant, large cutthroat working the rocky shorelines, where no-doubt, chum fry were busy feeding on aquatic invertebrates until they migrated to the sea in just a few short weeks. We would seine other areas, mostly sandy beaches, and find chum fry there also, but until you got to a rocky substrate, we never caught any of these magnificent 15 to 19-inch cutthroat trout with their bellies stuffed with chum fry. I couldn’t help but correlate these feeding habits with mine, except with a different food source, the French fry.
Our job was to work the waters of Tillamook Bay all spring, summer and fall, finding what species were prevalent and in what abundance. It had been decades since a study of this magnitude was conducted, and high time we did a temperature check on what’s going on in this estuary, designated as significant under the National Estuary Program.
It was an insightful season. With cool catches of juvenile lingcod, English sole, chum and Chinook, as well as surf smelt, top smelt and an array of other species, it became clearer than ever before that estuaries play a vital role in the life-cycle of many species. After reviewing the diversity and biomass of our work, with that of several decades earlier, it was also clear that we were missing an incredible array and mass of species that once resided in these estuaries. It’s no secret, things are-a-changin’.
I recently came across a detailed document, The Elements of Success in Fish and Wildlife, formulated from an extensive survey of fish and wildlife experts, on the success (or lack thereof) of fish and wildlife programs implemented over the last century. Now I’m sure no one close to 100 years old took the survey but these professionals have dedicated their entire adult lives to fish and wildlife management. Of course, my opinion may be biased, but these are some of the most intelligent people I know and are well respected in their field. The findings are fascinating and surely can be beneficial to future fish and wildlife managers that have the daunting task of shepherding these incredible natural resources into their most challenging times ahead.
Although I haven’t read the document in detail, it really doesn’t house any significant surprises. Dedicated fish and wildlife funding through the Wildlife Restoration Act and Sportfish Restoration Act is critical, given the history of “dedicated” funding from Congress, such as the grossly underfunded Land and Water Conservation Fund that finally got reauthorized just a few months ago. What might be most alarming was how low the professionals ranked the two items closest to my heart. When asked, “In a few words, what would you say are the most successful initiatives, programs, and/or efforts of fish and wildlife management over the past 100 years at the national level?” the establishment of conservation organizations ranked last at 4.6%. When asked, “In a few words, what would you say are the most successful initiatives, programs, and/or efforts of fish and wildlife management over the past 100 years at the national level?” the Magnuson-Stevens Act ranked last. It was an eye-opener.
It brings me back to two important questions that are only seemingly slipping farther and farther away in today’s fast-paced society:
- How do we best educate the public (since we’re all stakeholders) on the importance of these critical natural resources that we’re still reliant on, and
- How do we get the public involved in prompting lawmakers to make decisions that are best for these sensitive natural resources?
It remains a quandary for me, but given the rewarding feedback we received from Family Fish Camp and knowing that robust sea-run cutthroat trout, coming off a challenging spawning cycle in our coastal systems, are still snacking on a buffet of “chum fries,” I still have hope.