Stars of the screen

Russian River weir counter catches reds on camera

Posted: Monday, July 19, 2004

After spending its life eluding birds, whales, seals, sharks, commercial fishing nets, fish hooks and bears, a tired salmon is unable to escape the ever-watchful eye of an underwater video camera. Another Russian River sockeye salmon makes its debut on the silver screen.

This scene is played out hundreds, even thousands, of times each day on a video monitor in a cabin on the Russian, a small but important Kenai Peninsula salmon spawning area. And although the audience is currently small on most days the Alaska Department of Fish and Game attendant doesn't even bother turning the monitor on the humble sockeye could eventually become a star.

This is the first year the pilot video monitoring project has been in place. A joint effort between Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and a New York elementary school, the project has been going on all summer at the Fish and Game weir just downstream from Lower Russian Lake.

Fish and Game biologist Patti Berkhahn is running the project from the Fish and Game side. She said last week at the weir that it's hoped the video project eventually can be used by schoolchildren across the country to study the life cycle of the salmon.


A television monitor shows a red salmon as it swims through a gate in the weir.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"Ideally, if you had the money, you would do a satellite uplink and put the video out there live," she said.

For now, video tapes of fish passing through the weir are stored at the small Fish and Game cabin at the site. In the fall, the videos will be sent to Cuba Rushford (N.Y.) Middle School teacher Scott Jordan, who will digitize the images and put them on the World Wide Web.

Since this is the first year of the project, Berkhahn said the main goal is to figure out if the technology works and how it can best be used.

"It's a real feasibility study right now," she said.

Berkhahn said Jordan will then use the images to give his students a variety of projects that will, in effect, become a mini-course in fisheries biology.

"It's going to be a science and math project," Berkhahn said.

While she spoke, Berkhahn watched as weir technician Tom Rhyner released another sockeye through the weir's small fish trap. Rhyner, who spends most of his summer helping fish pass through the weir which stops fish from traveling upstream except for at the trap said the project actually consists of little effort on the part of Fish and Game. Basically, he said, the hardest part is making sure the underwater camera's batteries remain charged.

"The TV takes a lot of power," he said.

As long as the video feed runs straight to the VCR and not the backup television-VCR combo Rhyner said the monitoring project actually is easy on the batteries. And since he spends very little time watching the fish on video, Rhyner's job mainly consists of switching tapes and keeping a curious bear away from the weir.

"He's been here on and off just about every day," Rhyner said of the pesky brown bear. "Yesterday, I spent probably as much time dealing with him as I did passing fish."

If the camera isn't destroyed by the bruin, Berkhahn said it will continue to record fish passing upstream until the end of the summer. She hopes one day, students from around the world can watch as the Russian River's salmon sneak past bears and other obstacles and make it upstream to spawn.

"The program could really be expanded to our kids up here or anywhere," she said.

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