WENATCHEE — It’s been an exciting year for the six people who count fish at Rocky Reach and Rock Island dams.
A record-breaking 410,618 sockeye climbed the ladders at Rock Island, and 363,308 continued on past Rocky Reach on their way to their spawning beds this summer.
Fish counters also tallied more than 65,000 chinook salmon at each dam, and thousands of coho and steelhead. And it’s not over yet.
When the Chelan County PUD started counting fish after Rock Island Dam was built in 1933, the counters sat in drafty shacks, estimated the number of fish that went through during breaks, and blocked off the fish ladders when they went home at night. Today, fish counters adjust their desks from sitting to standing, listen to music, and keep an eye on the real-time camera image in a corner of their screen while fast-forwarding or slowing down a digital record of yesterday’s fish coming through. All while they’re counting up 21 different species and varieties, including spring, summer and fall chinook, adults and jacks — which are early spawners, and sometimes wild and hatchery fish.
The changes not only make the job more comfortable, but also provide more accurate numbers for fishermen, biologists and the agencies that set fishing seasons based on returns.
During the peak of sockeye spawning this year, six counters watched as many as 20,000 fish a day zipped across their screens. There were times when 500 fish went by in a three-minute period, said José Rodriguez, Chelan County PUD’s head fish counter. “You have to be very focused,” he said.
“The whole month of July you just knock off your calendar because you’re going to be counting fish and doing overtime,” added Debbie Patterson, who’s worked for the Chelan County PUD as a fish counter for 28 years now. It’s always been that way, she said. If you want to be a fish counter, you can pretty much forget hosting a family reunion in the summer.
Patterson remembers the days when fish counters sat in front of the windows below ground, counting the fish as they swam upstream.
WENATCHEE — Fishermen use it to figure out when to head to their favorite spot.
Fish biologists use it to track salmon runs.
And agencies that oversee fish harvests use it to decide when to open and close fishing seasons.
If you’re involved with salmon or steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, the daily fish counts at hydroelectric dams are important to you.
“The basic purpose of fish counting hasn’t really changed much,” said Steve Hays, senior advisor for Chelan County PUD’s fish and wildlife program, where they’ve been counting fish since 1933, when Rock Island Dam was built. “People want to know how many fish are getting up the Columbia River.”
One major difference is how quickly the fish counts are available to the general public.
“Back in those days, people might not even see the information for weeks or months. It was all written down by hand, and sent by mail,” Hays said. Now the information is usually available within a couple of days, if not the next day.
“The dam counts are critical for fishery management,” said Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
LaFleur’s agency uses the counts to set seasons and predict the size of runs, and to make sure there are enough of the endangered varieties headed to the spawning grounds to allow fishing.
The numbers can also act as a red flag, pointing out a problem at a dam if fish aren’t getting passed it, LaFleur said.
And, the counts help estimate how many fish are heading up various tributaries, she said. “If they go over Rock Island but they don’t go over Rocky Reach, a good portion of them are likely moving into the Wenatchee River,” she said.
Even if you’re not a fisherman, LeFleur said, the counts let everybody time their visit to a nearby dam. “It is the most fun you can imagine to go to a dam in the peak of these fish runs,” she said. “When that window’s full of fish, it’s pretty exciting.”
A couple of dams on the Columbia still count fish through windows, without the benefit of fast forward or rewind. But most — like Rocky Reach and Rock Island — have turned to digital recordings that counters can speed up when the fish are few and far between, or slow down to take an actual head count instead of guessing that a clump of 40 fish just went through.
It’s like a completely different job, Patterson said. “Sitting in the fish counting window and watching the fish swim by is heaven. Seeing them swim by on a screen at an accelerated rate and watching that for eight hours a day is a grind,” she said. “But the difference between the two, in my opinion, makes the record of the fish count more accurate.”
Fish counting then
Early-day fish counters at Rock Island Dam sat in wooden shacks perched above the ladder exits, looking down to count the fish coming through.
“It was nothing more than a wooden shack with drafty wind coming in,” said Steve Hays, Chelan County PUD’s fish and wildlife senior advisor.
That was before Hays’ time, but he’s heard stories about how those counters had to climb out over the fish ladders to get to their outhouse-sized offices, which got so cold that ice would form on the insides.
“At Rocky Reach they got a 10-minute break, and at Rock Island, they got a 15 minute break every hour,” he said. That’s because the bathrooms were farther away at Rock Island.
And to count what went through during those 10 or 15 minutes, they would tally the number from the previous 45 or 50 minutes, and extrapolate based on that. They didn’t have to estimate what came through at night. They just closed off the ladders.
Those days came to an end by the early 1970s, when the PUD built below-ground fish windows that looked in on the fish ladders.
That’s the kind of counting that Patterson remembers.
She said when she was first hired to count fish at Rock Island Dam, she was a young mother, and her co-workers were mostly semi-retired men. She didn’t have any background in fish biology, and neither did they. But it didn’t take long to recognize the difference between the species, she said.
They sat in a room with all kinds of power equipment around them, and faced a picture window, Patterson recalled. “We would click as the fish went by,” she said.
Clicking consisted of pushing one of several buttons on a mechanical device that kept a running tally of several kinds of fish. Once they got to know the button where each species was located, they didn’t even have to look down to use it.
Hays said a total of 12 counters were needed to cover four ladders at the two dams from mid-April through mid-November. Today, six people — three of whom are on call and only come in when needed — do the same work, and also count fish through the nighttime hours, and from the Tumwater Canyon.
He said in many ways, the old job was more relaxing than fish counting today. “It was like sitting in front of an aquarium all day,” he said. “But it’s very boring when there’s nothing going on. That’s the downside.”
Fish counting now
Patterson never counted from one of those over-the-ladder shacks. But she did work her way through a variety of technology changes after the PUD switched from real-time counting.
“We went from seeing them in a window to using a TV, to a VHS and then to digital,” she said. Each time, it got easier to use, and offered more options for getting an accurate count.
The fish ladders have dark lines on the back wall and floor measuring out 2 inches, 8 inches and 12 inches, to help counters choose one of 21 options for how to count that fish.
They’re looking at videos of fish that came through yesterday, while the camera equipment records those passing today, said Todd West, the Chelan County PUD’s fish and wildlife operations superintendent. Fish counters for both Rocky Reach and Rock Island dams now work at Rocky Reach.
“We pride ourselves on accuracy,” West said, adding. “That’s where the video helps. If you’re doing live counts in a window, and a lot of fish go through, you’re guessing. Or if you have to take a break,” he said. “And at the ladders, it could be hard not to fall asleep. But with computers, if it gets to that point, you pause and take a break.”
To Rodriguez — the lead counter who also does scheduling, technology support, and reports numbers — the technology is key. Because counters can speed up, slow down or even stop or take a photo of the fish coming through, they can take another look, or ask for another opinion. “It’s not an exact science,” Rodriguez said. But it’s becoming more so.
He said fish counters today are trying to go through a 24-hour recording in 8 hours, so in general, they’re watching recordings at three or four times the rate of real time.
“We have to go through a period of 24 hours in 8 hours, so we usually go three to four times the rate,” Rodriguez said.
To break the monotony of the job, counters take regular breaks, and find ways to entertain themselves while they count.
“Everybody has iPods, or music,” he said. “They’re free to chat as much as they want, as long as it’s not distractive to the process.”
Patterson said although she enjoyed sitting in front of a window more than a computer screen, she recognizes the advantages that technology has brought, particularly in terms of accuracy. “They’re two different things. Both of them are good jobs,” she said.
And, Rodriguez added, when the PUD sends someone in the ladders to clean the windows, the camera recordings are temporarily blocked off, so they go down and count them in real time until the cleaning is finished. “We still get a taste of what it used to be like in the old days,” he said.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512