Restoring - and rerouting - the Sitkoh River

Natalia Povelite and Ray Friedlander, Sitka Conservation Society interns, checked the fish traps as the water level sank in an unwanted offshoot of the Sitkoh River. The restoration volunteers are part of an effort reroute a 600-yard section of the Sitkoh River to its original channel.

The restoration project is a joint effort by the U.S. Fish and Game, U.S. Forest Service, Trout Unlimited and the Sitka Conservation Society. The $318,000 project was funded by $185,000 from the Forest Service, $108,000 from Fish and Game’s Sustainable Salmon Fund and $25,000 provided by Trout Unlimited. Sitka Conservation Society contributed additional staff time.

A group of journalists, leaders of fisheries groups and Randy Bates, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Habitat Division Director were flown in to the restoration site for a tour, Wednesday.

After collecting the juvenile salmon and trout in an aerated cooler, volunteers and staff move the young fish to the main Sitkoh channel.

“Otherwise they are going to get dried out and they are going to die,” said Perry Edwards, an ecosystem staff member for the Sitka Ranger District. “While it could be a short-term impact for a long-term benefit, we want to minimize that impact as much as possible and save as many of these small fish as we can.”

The best place to trap the juvenile fish was in deeper pools, Ray Friedlander said.

“There were some bets going on as to how many fish were going to be trapped today,” Ray Friedlander said. “Some were up to 700, some 200.”

Friedlander recently graduated from Berkeley and is enjoying the summer as an intern before deciding on her next step.

“That is what this phase of my life is about right now,” Friedlander said. “Just going with the flow… or diverting my flow,” she said with a smile.

“I guessed 400,” Sitka high school student and SCS volunteer Even McArthur said the fish count.

Sitka high school students Evan McArthur and Conner Fish volunteered part of their summer vacation to help restore the Sitkoh, through the Sitka Conservation Society. Fish, the perfect name of course, was motivated by his father’s work in the Forest Service.

“He’s been telling me about it for years and it sounded interesting,” Fish said.

“It’s for the passion of the resource, not for the cash,” Perry Edwards, ecosystem staff for the Sitka Ranger District said.

Volunteers and staff were still trapping and counting fish with the visiting group flew back to Juneau.

The Sitkoh River is located 35 miles north of Sitka at the southeast end of Chichagof Island. Its watershed contains nearly 30 miles of anadromous fish streams.

In the 1970s and 1990s the Sitkoh area was logged, mainly in the 1970s and mainly clearcut, over 2,800 acres. To access the timber, 30 miles of rough road was cut through the watershed.

“Timber harvesting and road building reduced the quality and quantity of fish spawning and rearing habitat,” according to a Forest Service fact sheet.

During a high water event in the fall of 1997 a large pulse, about a thousand yards, of fist-sized rocky debris clogged a section of the Sitkoh, raising the water level and rerouting the flow to a nearby logging road.

“There used to be a big snag … and another big log fell across the channel, so that huge debris jam slowed the water down and all that stuff dropped out,” Martin Becker, watershed program coordinator for the Sitka Ranger District said “That’s when thing went willy-nilly.”

The erosion extended over 200 feet since October 2011, Becker said.

With the new shallower channel established, a section of the Sitkoh branched out and braided around the roots of red alder.

“They don’t have the root strength to hold the banks in place,” Perry Edwards, ecosystem staff for the Sitka Ranger District said. “So this is going to be a continuous point source pollution area of sediment.”

In the shallow and often turbid water juvenile fish are easy prey for predators and subject to being stranded in low water and frozen solid in the winter.

“We end up with a kind of killing field,” Edwards said.

The main channel of the Sitkoh runs through an old growth riparian stand, while the wayward channel cuts though young growth alder.

To alleviate this danger, contractors diverted the water away from the errant channel and plan to build structures in the main channel to keep the flow on course and provide enhanced habitat for fish.

“Heavy equipment will also place numerous pieces of large wood in a [one-third mile) segment of stream that is devoid of any wood, has no pools and contains very poor spawning gravels,” according to a USFS fact sheet.

Hydraulics in the heavy equipment is charged with vegetable oil in case of a spill.

The Wilderness Society recently announced a new study on the effects of heavy logging and related road construction on coho salmon populations, specifically in the Staney Creek watershed on Prince of Wales Island. The study, conducted by Stillwater Sciences, found a 60 percent drop in the annual return of coho to the watershed.

The Wilderness Society wrote in a press release that a “healthy” salmon population can be maintained in the Tongass by “conserving remaining old-growth forests and restoring damaged watersheds,” according to the release.

The Forest Service conducted a preliminary analysis on the restoration effort’s effect on the estimated increase in pink and coho production in the Sitkoh watershed, Scott Harris watershed and restoration coordinator for the Sitka Conservation Society said. The analysis was a model and comes with “a lot of inherent uncertainties,” Harris said.

“To really understand the change in production, we would need to have 10-20 years of count data both prior to and post project,” Harris said. “The 10-20 years would account for the variability in salmon returns.” Harris said picking trees out of the forest of factors that contribute to salmon runs would be a challenge.

“Because of that, we have focused on assessing the change in salmon habitat,” Harris said. “We have a good handle on both rearing and spawning habitat needs for pink, coho, and chum. This project has been designed to increase habitat,” he said.

Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fisherman of Alaska said the most effective way of protecting salmon runs in Southeast Alaska is to protect the existing intact Tongass forest.

“In Southeast Alaska by far the number one priority is maintaining the habitat that is still in tip top shape which is a huge proportion,” Vinsel said. “For every situation like (the Sitkoh) there are 10 or hundreds that are still intact. The economics of it are far more favorable to preventing damage.”

Though it is advantageous to protect existing intact watersheds, Vinsel said, “it is commendable to identify projects like this and for groups to collaborate.”

“It wasn’t like people were trying to pillage things,” Wayne Owen, USFS Region 10 wildlife, fire, ecology, watershed and subsistence director said. “We learn over time.” Getting better “as long as we are learning and changing our behavior.”

There is a lot of faith in this restoration project, Sitka’s Perry Edwards said.

“We’ve done this in the Lower 48,” Edwards said. “A lot of hard lessons learned and save ourselves a lot of pain and suffering on that part.”

The first phase of the project is expected to be complete by early July, before the first run of Pink salmon return.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at



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