Watershed  Work  Turning  Coho  Habitat  Around
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MAPLETON - Charlie Dewberry lifts his head out of the water as he floats in a shallow pool of Knowles Creek.

"There's about 50 coho right here, by this log," says Dewberry, chief ecologist for the Eugene-based Pacific Rivers Council. "I'm just amazed at the resiliency of these fish."

This time of year, you'll often find Dewberry somewhere on Knowles Creek, the stream he's been studying for 15 years as part of a long-term restoration project headed by the rivers council.

On a wet weekday last week, he donned wetsuit and snorkeling gear to see where the newborn coho fry were feeding as part of a project to restore the Siuslaw River tributary's once-abundant coho, chinook and steelhead runs.

The project is the kind of effort Gov. John Kitzhaber wants duplicated all across Oregon.

It fits with the governor's idea of voluntary, cooperative projects involving landowners, volunteers and government agencies.

And it appears to be making a difference. When the project began, only about 25,000 salmon smolts went out to sea. In one recent year, the migration hit 250,000.

"Whatever they're doing here seems to be working," said Tom Petersen, a retired aerospace engineer from Florence who is volunteering to count smolts.

Besides the rivers council, partners in the project are the major timberland holders in the Knowles Creek basin - the John Hancock life insurance company and the U.S. Forest Service - and the volunteer Salmon Trout Enhancement Program.

Unlike projects focused on repairing streams, the Knowles Creek effort is tackling the watershed first.

Roads high in the watershed are being repaired, culverts are being widened, conifers are being planted along streams, and logging Is carefully planned to avoid damage to the best fish "refuges."

Dewberry says most in-stream projects are ineffective because they don't correct root causes of watershed degradation: poor logging practices, roads that can wash out and clear-cutting next to the best habitat.

The last time he counted fish in the entire stream, 85 percent were taking refuge in only 19 percent of the habitat-- an indication that the watershed has a ways to go before it's suitable for a strong fish run.

The Siuslaw River's historic in-migration of spawning coho surpassed 400,000.

Today, the run stands at about 5,400, up from the 1993-95 average of 3,550.

The number of smolts - outgoing juvenile coho-- far outnumbers the run of returning salmon because only about 2 percent survive their two-year stay in the ocean.

A fish trap on the stream is checked twice a day for smolts making their way downstream.

On a rainy morning last week, Petersen, Dewberry and three U.S. Forest Service biologists found two dozen or so.

They anesthetized the fish with Alka-Seltzer, then began the tedious process of counting, measuring and weighing them.

"Coho," Dewberry said as he pulled a smolt from the bucket.

"121," responded Forest Service biologist Lynn Hoed, calling out the fish's size in millimeters.

"14.6," added agency biologist Paul Burns as he weighed the fish, in grams.

Dewberry reached for another fish, and the process was repeated. Two dozen more fish to go.

"It's been an awesome thing to see all happen," Petersen said.