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Kamchatka’s Salmon and Steelhead:
Preserving and Learning from the Last Best Place
by Nick Gayeski
The undisturbed rivers on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula still exhibit the hydrological and habitat functions necessary to support large, complex salmonid populations.The Krutogorova River displayed an extremely complex interconnection with its floodplain throughout its length.
Eastern Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula is home to the last remaining intact
salmon ecosystems on the planet. Encompassing more than 184,000 square miles,
the peninsula extends 800 miles south from Siberia, separating the North
Pacific and Bering Sea on the east from the Sea of Okhotsk to the west. The entire
peninsula has fewer than 500,000 inhabitants, over half of them in the capitol,
Petropavlovsk, in the southeast.
A central mountain range running nearly the full length of the narrow peninsula divides east and west coasts, trapping precipitation as snow, and providing rich sources of gravel sediments for over 1800 rivers. Kamchatka’s natural wonders include 26 active volcanoes, half the world’s population of Stellar’s sea eagle, and a population of 5,000 to 10,000 of the largest brown/grizzly bears known, with some large males weighing over 1000 pounds.
The bears, other wildlife and bird species, and a variety of small human communities along Kamchatka’s west coast are sustained by abundant and incredibly diverse communities of salmon, trout, and char. Of the world’s known salmonine species, several of Kamchatka’s rivers contain over a third, including all six species of Pacific salmon – chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), chum (O. keta), pink (O. gorbuscha), sockeye (O. nerka), coho (O. kisutch), and masu or Japanese cherry salmon (O. masou) - several forms and life-histories of steelhead and resident rainbow (O. mykiss), and two species of char — Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) and the kundzha or Asian white-spotted char (S. leucomanis).
In sharp contrast to North America, most of Kamchatka’s watersheds are fully intact, from headwaters to coastal estuaries. There are no dams, no mines, no irrigation withdrawals, no cattle grazing, no logging. Highways exist only within the immediate vicinity of Petropavlovsk, and these are minor by American standards. The west coast of the peninsula and its rivers are particularly pristine. The western half of Kamchatka is essentially roadless, and many of its river systems remain virtually unexplored.
Nonetheless, over the last 25 years many of Kamchatka’s native salmon and steelhead populations have experienced disturbing declines, and more are headed for trouble. Kamchatka harbors Russia’s only steelhead stocks. As previously reported in WT Report, steelhead were placed on the Soviet Union’s Red Book listing of threatened and endangered animals in 1983, in response to declines from illegal harvest in estuaries and lower river segments (see “West Coast Steelhead Management Conference,” Bill McMillan; Spring, 1998). The Red Book listing ended all legal harvest of steelhead except for local native subsistence or expressly permitted scientific research. However, the 1990 collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of the Russian economy have considerably compromised Kamchatka’s ability to enforce harvest regulations. Adult salmon and salmon caviar is a major component of the diet of many Russians, and the illegal trade in both is considerable.
Unfortunately harvest pressure is not the only threat to Kamchatka’s wild fish populations. Kamchatka is rich in extractable resources such as gold, silver, platinum, oil and natural gas. Marine oil and natural gas deposits have been discovered off Kamchatka’s west coast. Various American, Canadian and Russian firms have developed plans to mine these resources. Russia’s current economic woes provide a climate ripe for a head-long rush into rapid exploitation of these un-replaceable natural riches at the expense of its sustainable natural resources, like its salmonid fisheries.
If we are going to preserve truly wild and diverse salmon and steelhead populations, sustained by pristine, complex, naturally functioning riverine ecosystems, we must do it in Kamchatka. For wild salmon and steelhead, Kamchatka is simply the last best place. If Kamchatka is lost, there is no other place left to turn to.
Partnership for Preservation
In 1993, the non-profit Wild Salmon Center established a partnership with Moscow State University and the Koryak Environmental Protection Committee of the Koryak Autonomous Region in northwestern Kamchatka to study and protect Kamchatka’s wild steelhead. The Kamchatka Steelhead Project invites angler/clients from around the world, working under the direction of Russian and American fisheries scientists, to help gather data on steelhead and resident trouts. Anglers get to fish spectacularly wild rivers while helping to collect scientific samples, and their dollars fund the project, making it possible for Russian scientists to be on the rivers on a regular schedule to collect genetic and related population data on steelhead. Since the first field season in 1994, the Project has collected data on steelhead populations from 15 river systems and has documented an astonishing variety of life-history patterns.
Project scientists, (left to right) Dmitri Pavlov, Moscow State University; Dr. Jack Stanford, University of Montana; Don Proebstel, Colorado State University; Okana Savaitova, Moscow State University; Serge Karpow, Wild Salmon Center.
The WSC and its Russian partners have also begun working with Russian fish
management agencies and the United Nations Development Project to develop and
fund a proposal to protect some of the most species-rich watersheds on
Kamchatka’s west coast. They propose designating four entire river systems,
spanning Kamchatka’s west coast, as salmonid watershed reserves. The Aquatic
Diversity Sites will extend from the Tigilsky District in the Koryak Autonomous
Region in the north, to the South Kamchatsky Nature Refuge in the south, which
includes Kurillsky Lake, home to sockeye runs in excess of one million fish.
Through financial and scientific assistance, this burgeoning international effort will help Kamchatka preserve its now-unique salmonid ecosystem diversity, monitor salmon/steelhead annual run sizes and stock health in priority watersheds, increase its enforcement capacity, and develop sustainable and value-added local salmon-based economies as alternatives to poaching.
Washington Trout has supported the WSC and the Kamchatka Steelhead Project since its inception. WT Board member Bill McMillan participated as a field director at two remote research sites on Kamchatka in 1995 and 1996. The necessary initial focus of the WSC and its Russian colleagues on the Steelhead Project has produced important, high quality work. WT has nevertheless been interested in helping WSC broaden the scientific scope of the research and preservation effort on Kamchatka to include work related to other species of indigenous salmonids, and to studying the current habitat conditions on the peninsula. To that end, WT was instrumental in facilitating the involvement of Dr. Jack Stanford in the Russian/US scientific partnership developed by the WSC.
Dr. Stanford is the Director of the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station and an internationally known authority in aquatic ecology, with particular expertise in the ecology of large rivers. A former member of the Northwest Power Planning Council’s Independent Science Group and its successor, the Independent Science Advisory Board, he was one of the principal authors of the Independent Science Group’s major report on salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin, Return to the River.
With the support of WSC Executive Director Guido Rahr, WT obtained funding from the New York-based Trust For Mutual Understanding to support the participation of Dr. Stanford and myself in a two-week WSC field expedition to the unexplored Krutogorova River in west central Kamchatka during the fall of 1999. The WSC organized the expedition with the principal aim of evaluating the Krutogorova for inclusion in the UNDP Aquatic Diversity Conservation Program. The WSC, Dr. Stanford, and WT also wanted to explore the potential for future US/Russian research on Kamchatka that would integrate salmon/steelhead life-history and river/floodplain dynamics and ecology.
Linking Kamchatka and Northwest Salmon Recovery
This type of integrated research promises to provide a link between the international effort to preserve Kamchatka’s salmonid resource and wild salmonid preservation and recovery efforts in the Pacific Northwest.
Wild salmon preservation and recovery efforts in the Northwest have for the most part been initiated only after population declines and habitat destruction and alteration have been well under way. Actions have to be taken with costs considerably higher and success much less certain than if measures had been undertaken when populations and their ecosystems were healthy. These actions have also lacked the guidance and understanding of salmonid population dynamics grounded in the observation and study of intact, abundant salmonid populations functioning in intact ecosystems.
Our fisheries managers and scientists lack an understanding of how watershed-scale ecosystem processes, functioning in the absence of human disturbance, shape the dynamics of salmonid fish populations and communities. Most importantly, perhaps, we lack detailed information on the dynamics of juvenile salmonids and how their life histories are shaped by complex, dynamic river and floodplain processes.
We need a better understanding about how physical, chemical, and geological watershed processes control the quantity and quality of salmonid habitats and food webs for each life stage. We need to acquire a coherent picture of how salmonid population diversity is maintained and structured by ecosystem processes at landscape and finer scales. Such knowledge is likely critical to the development of successful and efficient long-term salmon recovery strategies and measures. Without it, meaningful and enduring preservation and recovery measures on landscape and smaller spatial scales are unlikely to be realized.
Kamchatka’s intact river systems may help us fill these gaps and provide a surrogate baseline for recovering our own rivers. It is the last place where we can acquire this kind of ecological information. While preserving biodiversity and ecosystem integrity on Kamchatka is valuable in its own right, successful preservation efforts there could also foster more effective and scientifically well-grounded recovery strategies on “our” side of the Pacific.
Floating the Krutogorova
The Krutogorova is located on the 55th northern latitude (approximately the same latitude as the Bulkley River in northern British Columbia). It originates on the western divide of the Central Mountain Range at an elevation of approximately 5600 feet and flows more or less due west for nearly 200 miles to the Sea of Okhotsk. The exploratory float trip exceeded our expectations, providing provisional evidence that Kamchatka is a laboratory for understanding salmonid population dynamics and biological diversity.
The eight-person expedition team was made up of myself, Dr. Stanford, WSC’s Rahr, fisheries scientists Dr. Sergei Pavlov of Moscow State University and Don Proebstel of Colorado State University, Charlie Corrarino of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Conservation Biology Unit, a WSC flyfishing client, and a Russian guide/camp cook. We were flown by helicopter to the river’s headwaters near the estimated upper limit of navigability, about 125 miles from the estuary at an elevation of about 1150 feet. Over ten days, using four whitewater rafts, we descended about 90 miles to a base camp about 20 miles above tidewater.
While most of the team fished to collect trout, char, and salmon specimens for morphometric measurement and later DNA analysis, Dr. Stanford and I spent most of each day describing and measuring the physical complexity of the river and its floodplain, and characterizing and quantifying the diversity and ecology of juvenile fishes and their habitats. We conducted extensive surveys on three reaches of the river and its associated floodplain: at our starting location in the headwaters; about 30 miles downstream at a major tributary junction; and at another tributary junction, another 30 miles further downstream. We spent two to three days at each of the three reaches and spent one to two days floating from one reach to the next. At the end of our float, we spent several days conducting surveys in the vicinity of the base camp, in between extensive discussions with principal Russian scientists from Moscow State University and members of the WSC regarding our findings and the prospects for further Russian/US research projects.
As we floated the river between survey reaches, Dr. Stanford and I employed a novel habitat classification scheme developed by Dr. Stanford for observing and cataloging major river channel and floodplain features visible from the raft, which included the following feature types:
• Points of separation, where the main river channel cut a secondary channel or flow path into the adjacent riparian floodplain; whether these separations were caused by large wood and/or gravel accumulations (levees); whether these separations were actively conducting flow at the normal height of the river or were instead only active during high flows (flood overflow channels).
• Points of return flow, where channels entered from the floodplain. Wherever possible we tried to determine and classify return flows as channels returning from upstream separation points, as springs arising from groundwater flow emerging on the floodplain (springbrooks or wall-based spring channels), tributaries entering from sources elsewhere on or above the floodplain, or backwater channels.
• Gravel bars: several kinds and whether they have large pieces of wood associated with them.
• Islands: where they are located in the channel, and whether they are vegetated or not.
• Large woody debris jams.
• Terrace contact points (walls).
Recording these and other features enabled us to develop and recreate a picture of the complexity of interactions between the main river channel(s) and the floodplain that the river creates and maintains.
We concur with many contemporary river ecologists that floodplain aquatic habitat, particularly side channels and springbrooks, are the key environments for juvenile salmonid growth and survival, as well as underpinning the chemical and biological productivity of the main river channel. Active, complex interconnections between the main river channel and its floodplains from headwaters to estuary create a dynamic mosaic of aquatic habitats that ensures the existence of environments productive for salmonid and other fishes and their prey organisms at nearly all times of the year along most of the length of the river.
At nearly any given time of the year, there is likely to be some significant piece of habitat on the floodplain that meets the energetic requirements (food and/or shelter from extreme temperatures, flows or predation) of nearly every life stage of salmon and trout. Of equal if not greater importance, a wide range of environmental conditions important to juvenile and adult salmon and trout can exist in relatively close proximity to one another, making it possible for fish in various life stages to move easily and quickly from one set of conditions to more optimal ones, as conditions in the various sub-environments change. This is especially true with regards to water temperature.
These hypotheses are supported by evidence obtained for resident trout in a few areas of study in the United States and Europe. The most significant and well-documented of these have been several floodplain systems in the Flathead River Basin in Montana undertaken by Dr. Stanford and his colleagues over the past decade and a half. However, it is still supposition as regards salmon and steelhead, making the work conducted in Kamchatka invaluable.
The headwater camp reach of the Krutogorova provided surprising initial evidence that hypotheses about the importance of complex floodplain habitats to salmonid diversity and abundance were, indeed, well founded. A recent high water event had caused the river to cut a new channel into the edge of its broad glacial outwash floodplain, abandoning its former channel for nearly one mile. The avulsion at the upstream point of separation was caused by a large gravel levee that had accumulated around a cottonwood tree that had fallen due to bank erosion at its base.
This gravel levee had blocked off the former channel and turned it into a long, multi-channeled springbrook whose water source was groundwater that was upwelling into the channel downstream of the blocked entrance. This groundwater had previously been flowing in the main river channel further upstream and had downwelled, penetrating the river’s gravel substrate, flowing interstitially between the gravel and sand particles underneath the floodplain.
Called hyporheic groundwater (in contrast to phreatic or “true” groundwater originating on the uplands or from a confined aquifer), this river-channel-derived groundwater often differs from the water flowing in the open surface channel of the main river in important ways. Between the time it goes underground and the time it re-emerges on the surface of the floodplain, it travels more slowly than surface water and is insulated from temperature fluctuations taking place above ground. It generally emerges onto the floodplain several weeks or more after it went underground, generally retaining the temperature it had at the time it entered the substrate. This produces conditions on the floodplain whereby a variety of smaller channels exhibit a range of temperatures different from that of the main river channel nearby. During the heat of the summer, hyporheic water flowing in floodplain springbrooks can be several degrees cooler than water in the main river channel. The reverse is true during the late fall and winter; in fact, floodplain springbrooks can remain open during the depths of winter in environments in which nearby river surfaces are iced over!
The downwelling water also carries with it dissolved nutrients and small organic and mineral particles and it picks more of these up as it courses through the gravels. The long travel time through the gravels making up the river bed and underlying the floodplain enables chemical processes facilitated by the activity of microscopic organisms, particularly bacteria, to biochemically enrich this water in comparison to the surface water flowing in the main river channel. When it emerges out on the floodplain (or in the main river channel itself) it is often capable of greater biological productivity, making floodplain waterbodies richer and more diverse in aquatic insects, for example. In fact, the hyporheic zone itself is an environment inhabited by aquatic invertebrates including most of the common mayfly and stonefly larva known to fly anglers.
Many of these conditions were demonstrated dramatically on the newly-created springbrook and on springbrooks arising on the glacial outwash floodplain on the other side of the river. Midway along the main springbrook a tiny rivulet carrying surface water from the main river entered. At 2 PM on a sunny afternoon the temperature of the rivulet was the same temperature as the main river itself, 6.2° Centigrade (43° F). A few feet below where this water mixed with the water of the main springbrook, water temperature was 7° C (45° F). From that point upstream 40 feet, water temperature progressively increased to 9.5° C (49° F).
For a cold-blooded animal like a juvenile salmon, a difference of 6° F makes a huge difference to overall metabolism. All of the springbrooks, on both sides of this section of river, were full of juvenile salmonids. Using only a small D-shaped insect kicknet, we collected six species of salmon and char plus one stickleback in less than half an hour from the main springbrook in a small scour pool adjacent to a rootwad.
The new main channel was in the process of finding its way through the riparian forest that bordered the floodplain and equilibrating its gradient with the valley floor. This produced a dramatic headcut in the new main channel that looked like a mini Niagara Falls. This mini waterfall in the middle of the new channel was actively progressing upstream toward the new point of avulsion at an estimated rate of ten meters per day!
This new river channel moving from one side of the floodplain across to the other provided a striking juxtaposition of young and old habitats spanning a range of stability: the former main river channel beginning to function as a member of the floodplain, a stable springbrook; the brand new channel trying to make room for itself in the riparian zone and make peace with the slope of its valley; and the majority of the old glacial outwash floodplain still functioning as it had for decades before the recent channel change.
The riparian, floodplain forest consisted primarily of willow, cottonwood, and alder in various successional stages. On older portions of floodplains that were elevated four to six feet above the main river channel, large old growth cottonwoods frequently attained heights in excess of 120 feet and had diameters at breast height of over three feet. One large specimen measured over seven feet in diameter. Willows also grew to significant sizes, often exceeding two feet in diameter and attaining heights in excess of 60 feet. This willow/alder/cottonwood forest extended continuously the entire length of our raft trip and beyond, clear to tidewater, interrupted only where the river hugged the edge of high bedrock walls. The large willows and cottonwoods provided the major elements that forced and controlled channel/floodplain interactions, generally forcing the main river to cut a side channel into the floodplain, causing a side channel to be blocked off, or forcing a major channel to abandon its course and find a new one.
The dynamics of such wood/gravel/river/floodplain interactions could be considerable. Several braided reaches encountered during the float contained in the neighborhood of ten major separation points per kilometer. During the first 60 miles of our float many of these separations contained 30 to 50 percent of the water that had just been in a single thread of main channel! As the accompanying photo suggests, this made for some interesting rafting.
The Biological Story
The biological story is strikingly clear in broad outline. The Krutogorova displayed a wide array of complex river/floodplain dynamics in which the presence of large wood on the floodplain, along the edge of the river, and in the river, was fundamental in creating and maintaining complex floodplain habitats. Complex river surface/floodplain-groundwater interactions appeared to drive biological diversity in floodplain habitats, especially in springbrooks. Juvenile salmon and char were abundant in nearly all of the floodplain habitats that we examined.
The phenomena of multiple species of juvenile salmonids using the same or similar parts of the same floodplain habitats in close spatial proximity, often including outright mixing of species and size classes, was common in all springbrook habitats that we examined over the length of the river. At the downstream base camp, we obtained the use of a backpack electro-shocker that we used to collect samples of juvenile salmon and char for laboratory analyses by our Russian colleagues. One morning, on a 100-foot stretch of a four-foot wide springbrook, we collected enough juveniles to fill five one-gallon Zip-Lock bags in less than 45 minutes!
Most of the main salmon runs were over by the time we floated the river, except for the end of the coho run. The steelhead run was just about to begin; the day before we left in early October the first four steelhead were caught. However, for all intents and purposes the run did not materialize. In the two weeks following our departure the total catch for the camp was a dozen fish, well below the experience and expectations of the Kamchatka Steelhead Project in six previous years on rivers to the north in the Koryak Autonomous Region.
A sizeable permanent village is located at tidewater, about 15 miles below our base camp. Legal and illegal netting in the lower river and estuary appears to have had a clear impact on Krutogorova steelhead. Unfortunately, despite the complex riverine habitats and high species diversity that we verified on the river (including riverine sockeye), the uncontrolled overharvest on the lower river associated with a permanent settlement made the Krutogorova unsuitable as a United Nations salmon diversity preserve.
Washington Trout will continue to take part in the important work being conducted on Kamchatka. Dr. Stanford and I will return this fall to join a WSC expedition to explore and evaluate the Oblukovina, the next major river system to the north of the Krutogorova. The Oblukovina, reputed to be at least as complex and species rich as the Krutogorova, will hopefully provide more data to help protect the Kamchatka Peninsula, this last best place, and to serve as a model to help us recover our own wild fish resources.