Fish passage: Why did the salmon cross the road?

Posted: Friday, January 29, 2010

Why did the salmon cross the road? To get to the other tide.

Fish Passage Problems

With tens of thousands of spawning streams crisscrossing the 49th state, most in largely undeveloped watersheds, the fact that fish passage could be a significant threat to Alaska's salmon may come as a surprise. However, recent surveys have demonstrated that thousands of culverts -- underlying major highways, city streets, forest roads, and private drives -- block fish at a range of water flows and fish life stages.

Alaska's Fundamental Fish

Salmon are essential to Alaska's economy and its social and ecological vitality. Salmon produced in Alaska rivers support recreational and commercial fisheries valued at hundreds of millions of dollars annually and support the continued vitality of subsistence lifestyles. Salmon also play keystone ecological roles by transporting nutrients from marine to freshwater ecosystems, contributing to the productivity of rivers, lakes, wetlands, and forests.

Multiple barriers (such as culverts) on a single watershed could contribute to decreased numbers of fish and eventual reductions in sport, commercial and subsistence fishing opportunities. A single road crossing with a bad culvert can prevent fish from reaching miles of habitat. Small tributaries provide the path to salmon nurseries. Studies have shown that juvenile salmon that successfully migrate up and down small streams survive better in the ocean.

It is important to keep these migration routes free of barriers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a program dedicated to correcting fish passage barriers.

What is the Fish Passage Program?

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Fish Passage Program in the Alaska Region partners with state agencies, municipalities, boroughs, non-profit organizations, and others to reconnect stream habitat that has been fragmented by artificial barriers, such as culverts, weirs, and dams. Since the program was established in 1999, we have provided technical assistance and matching federal funds for projects to remove more than 100 barriers across the state. These projects have increased access to more than 500 miles of historic spawning and rearing habitat for salmon, char, trout, Arctic grayling, and other species.

Most projects have replaced undersized culverts with larger structures that replicate the streambed and allow movement by both adult and juvenile fish. The Fish Passage Program provides technical assistance and federal funds to partners who wish to remove, replace, or retrofit culverts, weirs, abandoned dams, or other structures that impede fish movement.

The program also supports surveys of fish barriers within watersheds. Funds may be used for projects on both public and private lands; cost sharing by partners is encouraged.

What's happening on the Kenai Peninsula?

In partnership with the Kenai Watershed Forum and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game we have been investing in culvert inventories, fish passage assessments, and barrier remediation across the Kenai Peninsula. By combining Kenai Watershed Forum survey results with previous surveys by Alaska Department of Fish and Game, a total of 517 stream crossings have been identified; of these crossings, 270 are culverts crossing state cataloged salmon streams while the remaining are bridges, dams, weirs, or ATV trails.

A total of 48 (18 percent) of the 270 culverts assessed provide adequate passage, 93 (34 percent) provide marginal passage, and 129 (48 percent) provide inadequate passage. Using information collected in these assessments, we work together to prioritize the most ecologically important projects and implement these improvements first when practical. In our efforts to correct fish passage barriers we also work opportunistically, taking advantage of situations like roads being converted from gravel to pavement.

In the fall of 2007 the Kenai Watershed Forum managed a project where we addressed four fish passage barriers within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. We replaced perched culverts on Mink Creek, Doghouse Creek, and Merganser Creek near Swanson River Road. Additionally, we used a "new-to-us" technique creating step pools to fix a perch on Breeze Creek.

These fish passage restoration projects were undertaken and supported by our partnerships with the Kenai Watershed Forum, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Chevron, and Peak Oilfield Service Company.

Over the past two years in conjunction the Kenai Watershed Forum, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the U.S. Forest Service, and various other partners, the Fish Passage Program has facilitated the removal of fifteen barriers.

This has increased access to over 10 miles of aquatic habitat on the Kenai Peninsula for the benefit for residents, visitors, and the ecosystem that supports all of us.

Mike Edwards is a habitat restoration biologist at the Kenai Fish and Wildlife Office in Soldotna and leads the Fish Passage Program on the Kenai Peninsula for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge Web site,

You can check on new bird arrivals or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline at 907-262-2300.

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