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Stream by stream, volunteers map the Kenai Peninsula's anadromous waters

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Chris Tamagni is one of a dozen volunteers mapping the presence of anadromous fish in Kenai Peninsula streams and lakes, through a partnership with the Kenai Watershed Forum and Trout Unlimited. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

Four-wheelers and hikers might breeze past this tributary of the Moose River — a short and wet hike away from the highway, in Sterling.

But Ben Meyer, an environmental scientist for the Kenai Watershed Forum, had a suspicion: that there are salmon feeding and growing in the waters there. Last Saturday, he and two volunteers bushwhacked through the marsh to see if that was true.

“There’s not quite as much sportfishing action here,” he said. “But from the salmon’s perspective, this is just as interesting.”

Meyer is working on a project to add more streams into the state’s Anadromous Waters Catalog.

Anadromous fish, including salmon, are born in freshwater and migrate to the ocean to spawn. The state keeps a list of streams and lakes that have been verified to have anadromous fish, which affords them certain protections under the law.

Any proposed development that might affect an anadromous body of water in the catalog first needs a fish habitat permit. Regulators work with permit holders to make sure they can mitigate any impacts on fish populations.

The Watershed Forum and Trout Unlimited are working with grants from the national Trout Unlimited and the Kenai Community Foundation to collect data and add more streams into that catalog.

The grants cover costs like gas and equipment. Much of the field work comes from volunteers — like first-timer Chip Tamagni.

“The next coho I catch down in Centennial Park, I’m definitely going to have an appreciation that it could’ve come from all the way up here,” he said Saturday. “And that’s just incredible.”

Meyer said looking for anadromous fish in these waters is a lot like prospecting. And if they can spot and log just a few anadromous fish, they can nominate the stream for a spot in the catalog.

Trout Unlimited has been mapping streams all over Alaska for years. Mark Hieronymus is the sportsfish outreach coordinator with Trout Unlimited, based in Juneau.

He said the survey project there was born out of a recognition that guides and anglers in Southeast Alaska had a lot of local knowledge about where anadromous fish were — even if those areas weren't yet in the catalog.

“And for some of these species, because of their lack of inclusion in the catalog, their habitat was relatively unprotected,” he said.

He said turning that local knowledge into scientific data is a way better inform conservation of those species. In many cases, it’s baseline data.

So that is additive to the general body of scientific knowledge concerning fish and their distributions in Alaska,” he said. “ Which is hugely important.”

Dave Atcheson with the Kenai Peninsula's Trout Unlimited chapter said teams on the central peninsula checked out several streams this summer and worked with about a dozen volunteers. He said they’re working to train more so that they can go out on their own and log even more mileage.

Volunteers don’t always find fish. But Meyer said they’ve been getting better at predicting where fish could be before they head out, using maps.

Sure enough, after a half hour of waiting Saturday, Meyer spotted a glint of something shiny in one of his traps — a young coho.

“He was probably born this spring,” he said. “He’s not very big.”

There were several coho in the traps after a half hour, each about the size of a finger. Meyer said juvenile fish seek out streams like these because they’re cooler than the main-stem river and sheltered from predators.

Tamagni, the first-time volunteer, said it’s remarkable that there are salmon in this marshy of a spot.

“You can already see that little bit of black in their tail that you totally see when they’re adults swimming in the river,” he said. “They got that distinct line.”

The group also trapped some rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. Further upstream, they found even more coho. After snapping photos and taking field notes, the group released the fish back into the water.

Just as Meyer guessed, there are enough anadromous fish in the stream to justify nominating this .7-mile stretch to the Anadromous Waters Catalog. If regulators greenlight the nomination, the area will be added in and protected.

The Watershed Forum and Trout Unlimited are always looking for new volunteers to map local streams. Those who are interested can contact the Kenai Watershed Forum.

Meyer said people in more rural communities who want to log their findings can do so on the Fish Map App.