Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Countin' Fish on a Ladder

You've heard of shooting fish in a barrel? I met a man last week in the Pacific Northwest who counts fish on a ladder.

No joke.

Ron Mcpeak of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife spends his workday in a cramped cubicle inside the Bonneville Dam, counting fish – one by one – as they migrate up the Columbia River. The dam is about 40 miles east of Portland, just off Interstate 84.

It's not a dirty job (a la Mike Rowe), but it is an unusual one that pays anywhere from $12.14 to $15.66 per hour, according to a wildlife agency spokesperson.

A large picture window in Mcpeak's office looks into the multi-step channel (called a ladder) that allows salmon and other fish species to circumvent the dam during upstream journeys.

Mcpeak said the ladder narrows to 18 inches outside his window, making it nearly impossible for him to miss any critter swimming by. Colored yarn strung in front of the window allows him to calculate individual lengths.

For 50 minutes an hour, eight hours a day, Mcpeak pecks at color-coded keys on his computer, counting various species as they swim past his window. He counts different varieties of salmon (Chinook, coho and sockeye), as well as steelhead trout, shad, and lamprey. Subsets of the tabulation account for sex, time of day, and time of year.

Separate color keys on Mcpeak's computer are for wild salmon and steelhead, while others tabulate those raised in a hatchery. The adipose fin is clipped from hatchery-raised fish, he explained.

It takes a keen eye and quick reflexes to spot the difference. If a fish fails to make it up the ladder, Mcpeak hits a subtraction key.

The counts allow Northwest fish biologists to calculate yearly catch quotas for Oregon, Washington, and other states on the Columbia, as well as the many Native American tribes that take fish from the 1,243-mile river – the fourth longest in the U.S.

Regular updates are available on the Bonneville Dam website and a link to YouTube allows Internet users to glimpse fish swimming up the ladder.

A 1.5 percent margin of error in the counting system allows for the 10 minutes each hour that Mcpeak and his co-counters take breaks.

Despite the margin, counting individual fish in the river has proved very effective in managing the resource, a spokesperson said.

Washington contracts with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct the count. It's all part of the environmental remediation policy adopted by the Corps when constructing the dam.

Mcpeak said 2010 was a record year for salmon in the Columbia, with numbers of Chinook and coho nearly doubling annual averages.

Best times to see fish in the ladder is August through November when adult salmon are headed upriver to spawn.

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