On Wednesday morning, timed for the extreme low tide at 7:25 a.m., a handful of intrepid adventurers walked across the Rogue River estuary without getting their knees wet to demonstrate how shallow our estuary has become.
The water was cool, but not cold, and we got used to it quickly so it didn’t really feel cold at all as we crossed. The current was faster than I expected and, at the deepest point, just under knee deep, we had to step carefully to avoid having our feet swept out from under us.
It was foggy and fairly cool when we started, but the wind was blowing and the fog broke up as we crossed. It was sunny and warm, but windy, when we finished 30 minutes later.
During our trek we saw schools of small fish trapped in isolated pools caused by the very low tide (-2.1 feet) on both sides of the river. Also, we were “buzzed” by an osprey several times, presumably because we were keeping him from catching breakfast. There was quite a crowd that watched us, mostly from the Mail Boats, as they were delaying getting customers into the jet boat because the river was so shallow. A Jerry’s Jet Boats boat passed us while we were about two-thirds of the way across, and it made it through the shallowest section without grounding. I didn’t know they could run in water that shallow!
Decades of changes to the river – such as damming, poorly designed and regulated gravel harvesting, and filling for commercial development – have left our estuary shallow, warm, and an increasingly poorer habitat for fish. Both commercial and sport harvest of salmon provide a significant portion of the local economies of South Coast communities.
Every salmon in the entire Rogue River drainage must pass through the estuary twice in its lifetime. Estuary habitats are critical to salmon as they transition from fresh to salt water on their way to the ocean. In fact, the number one indicator of whether a young salmon will return from the ocean to spawn is the size of that salmon when it moves from the estuary into the ocean, and the size of that smolt is directly related to the quality of salmon habitat in the estuary.
Adult salmon must also swim through the estuary on their way back to their spawning grounds. If the estuary doesn’t provide complex, deep habitats for returning adults, they will easily fall prey to sea lions or have trouble swimming through the estuary because they can’t get enough oxygen from the warm, algae-filled, water.
If our estuaries continue to get shallower and warmer they will provide less high quality salmon habitat and fewer and fewer salmon will return to spawn. That means fewer visitors, empty hotels and restaurants, fewer river guides, and less chance for even locals to catch a fresh salmon for dinner.
So, here are a few ideas of what you can do help:
•Encourage agencies to allow peak winter flows to pass-through upriver dams. High winter flows scour the river bed and maintain deeper pools and channels in the river.
•Support a moratorium on development adjacent to the estuary that diminishes habitat values of the estuary – such as filling in the estuary, rip-rapping river banks, or removing riparian vegetation, for example.
•Support dredging of the estuary to renew deeper water habitats that provide cool resting and feeding habitats for fish and other aquatic organisms.
•Become involved in gravel mining issues on the river and ask the Department of State Lands (DSL), the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI), your local Planning Department and Commission, and the Curry County Commissioners to only allow gravel mining that enhances and creates new estuarine habitat.
•Pay attention to the oil that drains from your car, the fertilizer and other chemicals that you use on your lawn and landscape, and the animal waste from your pets, as they can all end up in storm drains or drainages that flow into the river and degrade the water quality of the river.
Our river and the abundant beauty, recreation, and natural resources that it provides to us is a gift that requires vigilance, stewardship, and action. We walked the estuary as a reminder of our need to become involved in issues that affect our estuary – to ensure that we pass on to future generations a fully functioning estuary and abundant salmon populations.
If you would like more information about our Rogue River estuary and how you can become more involved in preserving its unique characteristics, please contact Frank Burris at the Oregon State University Extension Service office in Gold Beach at (541) 247-6672 or toll free, (800) 356-3986. If you would like to participate in the Second Annual Rogue River Estuary Walk in June of 2010, watch the Pilot for information prior to that event.