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Fish & Wildlife biologists count bull trout on the Skokomish

Shelton-Mason County Journal of Shelton, Washington

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Two dark green figures slithered downstream of the Skokomish River under a bridge, back and forth from shore to shore earlier this month.

At first glance, the figures look like spooky dead bodies for a Halloween prank, or giant turtles searching for food.

But the figures were two biologists from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife searching for bull trout and steelhead salmon.

Mark Downing and fellow biologist Chris O'Connell donned full rubber suits over layers of fleece and stuck snorkels in their mouths to comb 10 miles of the river.

"We get people who think we're Sasquatch," Downing said.

About 7 miles into their venture, the two spotted 65 bull trout and 25 steelhead salmon.

Downing said the two species are unique to the area because they find their way from the sea up the narrow canyon that runs under the High Steel Bridge.

"Bull head and steelhead are genetic legacies in the South Fork Skokomish," he said. "They have been there for hundreds of thousands of years and occupy a niche in terms of being above a canyon."

Downing has snorkeled through what he calls the "South Fork Canyon" a couple of times before. He said the trout and salmon "stack up" in the deep wells at the base of the canyon before making their ascent.

"Steelhead are excellent jumpers and bull head can find passageways through rocks," he said. "These fish have evolved to ascend the river during the melting snowpack and heavy fall rains."

Monitoring the fish population in the South Fork

Skokomish is an important tool for monitoring the health of the forest, Downing said.

"Monitoring the population is critical as a biological resource," he said. "Because they are small populations in the Hood Canal drainage area, they are susceptible to removal from the ecosystem."

Downing said the South Fork Skokomish is closed to fishing all year round from Rural Creek to Lebar Creek — a 7-mile-long section — to protect the population.

But it isn't just about illegal fishing.

"Bull trout need cold water to survive; if you have warmer water you could potentially lose that bull trout population," he said. "There are some things outside of human control but it is important to focus on what you can do."

Downing said adherence to fishing regulations and responsible forest practices could make sure that bull trout and steelhead trout make their way up the canyon on the Skokomish River for thousands of years to come.

"Monitoring the population is critical as a biological resource."

Mark Downing, biologist for the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife

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Original Publication Date: October 29, 2015

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