Story last updated at 3:46 p.m. Thursday, November 7, 2002

Flooding likely to deal blow to salmon stocks
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

Habitat biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have been busy lately, assessing the impacts of recent flooding on the salmon streams of the lower Kenai Peninsula. The picture they paint is not good.

But Ninilchik resident Mark Kruzick, whose house on the banks of Deep Creek was inundated by the muddy flows, offered perhaps the most ominous observations.

"I was shoveling salmon fry out of my garage," he said.

In addition to the loss of fry and salmon eggs in the area's rivers, Kruzick noted that sport fishermen who come to Deep Creek to catch salmon have another concern -- surging water cut new channels, eliminating large portions of the two-mile stretch of the lower river where salmon fishing is permitted.

"My favorite fishing hole in front of my house no longer exists," Kruzick said. "It's history."

It's the same story up and down the drainages of Deep Creek and the Anchor River, said Robert Begich, a fish biologist with Fish and Game in Homer.

Begich said it was clear that there was widespread devastation to the river systems of the lower peninsula. The damage came as flooding peaked on Oct. 23 when weeks of rainy weather were capped off with a deluge that brought inches of rainfall to many drainages in the space of a few hours. In addition to the washouts on the Sterling Highway, many smaller dirt roads accessing subdivisions and logging areas were wiped out where they crossed the tributaries of the area's bigger rivers.

"There's stretches of Deep Creek that look like a glacial flood plain in Interior Alaska," Begich said. "It's completely devoid of vegetation."

Using an aerial photo of Deep Creek as it looked before the flooding, he explained the changes on the lower section of Deep Creek, where two miles of river above the beach is designated for salmon fishing. Begich traced his finger along the path that the river pummeled as it bypassed several prominent bends and ox-bows.

"This spot here will probably just become an active slough," he said as he pointed to the quarter-mile long ox-bow located just above the popular fishing spot known as the "slide hole."

But for fisheries biologists, a more pressing question is what effect all that scouring and subsequent deposition of mud and silt on the gravels in the river beds. Spawning salmon deposit their eggs into these critical gravel beds and their offspring emerge from them in the spring and use them for shelter and feeding grounds.

The flooding posed a triple threat. Raging floods pushed much of the gravel, boulders and other cover in the main channels of the lower rivers out to sea. The newly carved channels may leave some spawning grounds cut off from the mother stream. Finally, and perhaps most critically, the mud and silt that washed down onto spawning beds threaten to suffocate this year's eggs.

While department biologists in Soldotna are holding their breath in hopes that the critical salmon stocks of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers will weather the high waters there, Begich said it doesn't look good for the streams on the lower peninsula.

"You'd have to be a fool to think that there's not going to be an effect on the returns of these fish, this was a catastrophic riverine event," Begich said. "It's something that we might not see again in our life time.

"It wouldn't surprise me if there were entire stretches (of spawning beds) that were wiped out."

Begich said that the silver salmon runs on Deep Creek and the Anchor River, which local anglers said were exceptionally strong this year, were particularly at risk.

"Cohos are probably more susceptible because they are spawning now," said Jeff Fox, a commercial fisheries biologist with Fish and Game in Soldotna. "With the high water, they may not have been able to do that."

Begich said he did find some spawned out silvers far up on the river banks, where they'd been left as the water receded.

Juvenile silver salmon are also particularly at risk during floods because they spend two years in fresh water once they hatch. Floods that swept away everything in their path will likely impact silver salmon runs for three consecutive years beginning in 2004.

King salmon eggs and first year fry are likely to take a hit, though with more years spent in the ocean and some variation in their ages when they return to spawn, kings thought to be less susceptible to catastrophic fresh water events.

Begich was less sure what would happen to the area's coveted steelhead stocks, though he said he could not confirm rumors of steelhead stranded in meadows far from the normal river banks. He theorized that steelhead, which don't spawn until spring, were more likely to have survived by pulling into eddies or retreating back into the ocean.

The effects of the flood on the spawning gravels are likely to reverberate into coming spawning seasons, Begich added. Mud that was deposited close to a foot deep across some stream banks and adjacent wetlands will continue to run off with subsequent rains and breakups, he said.

Begich speculated that the failure of smaller roads at their crossings of Deep Creek and the Anchor River may have contributed to the exceptional amount of mud that came with the floods. The loss of the drainages' forested cover also likely added to the amount of silt in the floodwaters, as soils in dead spruce forests were shed into hundreds of small streams.

Bob Shavelson, a water quality advocate and director with Cook Inlet Keeper, said Tuesday he hoped that the amount of damage caused by this event might serve as a warning that development in lower peninsula watersheds should be approached carefully.

"This will hopefully get people to think about land-use planing and development in riparian areas," he said. "We all agree that our salmon resources are critical to the people and economics of the lower peninsula. We need to recognize that there is a inherent link between water quantity and water quality and fish habitat."

Even as Shavelson spoke, Fish and Game habitat biologist Steward Seaberg was driving all over the peninsula , checking on road reconstruction projects that crossed or otherwise impacted salmon streams.

In many instances, the crossings will be replaced just as they were before the floods, though Department of Transportation spokesman Murph O'Brien said there was some consideration to putting a bridge where the Sterling Highway crosses Stariski Creek.

Whether the roads and their stream crossings get a face lift or not, it is clear that nature did a makeover on the rivers themselves.

Krusick wondered aloud how the fishing would be next season.

"Will those fish recognize their home next spring?"

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer