Todd Boswell and team count juvenile coho at night in effort to improve habitatAs part of his job, Todd Boswell goes snorkeling and looks for fish.

But this isn't the kind of snorkeling you do on vacation in Cozumel. Boswell snorkels at night. In the winter. In North Coast rivers. When water temperatures are only slightly above freezing, and you can see your breath in front of your face.

Conditions might not be cushy, but Boswell is mapping the habitat of juvenile coho salmon, and because they are nocturnal in cold water, he is as well.

"If you're going to go out and look for juvenile coho in winter, you have to go out at night," Boswell said. Otherwise, "It's like looking for owls on a sunny day. You're probably not going to see them."

And in the summer, some of the pools and channels that are the coho's winter retreat, dry up. So to get the most accurate count, Boswell, a biology consultant, surveys on winter nights.

SurveysThe snorkel surveys are just part of an inventory of the Youngs Bay and upper Nehalem watersheds that Boswell and his team are conducting. The goal is to identify where the fish are, and where they could be if the habitat is improved.

"It's like a snapshot of the watershed for this year," Boswell said. The results from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board-sponsored study are also designed as a guide for watershed councils that are deciding where to focus restoration efforts.

"We can determine what type of habitat we have, and what type of habitat needs there are, then go in and prioritize restoration projects," said Todd Cullison, watershed coordinator with the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce and the North Coast Watershed Association.

The first step of the project takes place by the light of day.

The biologists, including Zach Forster, Mark McLaughlin and Kenny Louis, walk the various river branches and tributaries. They take notes on the vegetation along the river, its width and steepness, the sand and gravel composition along the riverbed, large pieces of wood in the stream, and pools of water or side channels that might be tempting to fish searching for a place to rest and feed.

They mark every fourth pool with an orange flag so they can come back at night to check for fish.

Night workOn a recent clear night, Boswell pulled a dry suit on over a fleece jumpsuit, added a dive hood with a third of an inch of insulation along with mittens and boots, and grabbed his snorkel and a high-powered dive light. LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

On a recent moonlit night, Todd Boswell, a biology consultant, put on his mask and snorkel in preparation for night snorkeling.The water in the North Fork of the Klaskanine River can be between 35 and 43 degrees Fahrenheit, but he said his gear keeps everything except his face warm (he grows a beard to help with that).

"It's really not that bad, unless you have a leak in the suit," Boswell said.

He walked across an underused county park, which the river had cut channels through in previous years but was now isolated from the water by boulders placed by people. Earlier, he had noted that if the rocks were removed, the park could revert to prime fish habitat.

Entering the stand of trees that line the Klaskanine, it took a couple wrong turns to find the pools he was looking for. Usually the biologists arrive before dark to familiarize themselves with the area.

But Boswell soon found the site, a still pool under a leaning hardwood tree, fed by a swampy channel from the mainstem. Stepping gently into the water, careful to not stir up sediments, he rinsed his mask and slipped underwater.

He swept the dive light back and forth, searching for juvenile coho with the characteristic white spot on their fin. The beam illuminated the space under overhanging roots and soil, and around branches that had fallen in the water.

He popped his head up with the coho count - only a handful, since the rains the week before had stirred up sediments and obscured visibility. When Boswell and another biologist had been there before the rain, they had spotted about a dozen.

After a few stops, and still more murky water, Boswell called it a night, happy he had gone out before the wet weather clouded the streams. On that trip, the biologists snorkeled in 21 pools spread out over six miles. In all, they expect to inventory 30 to 40 miles of habitat. But they have to be flexible with the weather.

"There are some weeks in the winter where you wouldn't want to be in any creek," Boswell acknowledged.

He said that as far as he knows, not many on the Oregon Coast go night snorkeling. Although the surveyors obtain permission from landowners to go on their property, he has had neighbors come down and wonder what two men, covered head-to-toe in dry suits, are doing tromping around the river at night.

But Boswell said night snorkeling gets results; whereas a surveyor might see five fish during a winter day, they could see 50 that night. And coho are found in more places during the winter.

"This is really the better time of year to do it to get more useful information," agreed Gareth Ferdun, the former chair of the Nehalem watershed council who helped set up the first surveying project in that watershed. He added, however, that "It's not pleasant out there sometimes."

Setting standardsBoswell is currently working with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife staff to establish a protocol for night snorkeling.

The surveyors don't count the exact number of fish, but instead note if a pool has a high or low density of fish or none at all. They combine that information with observations from the daytime survey, and produce a report for the watershed council, containing a list of areas that would benefit the most from large woody debris in the river or fish passage equipment.

Boswell has already done surveys and created reports for the Necanicum and lower Nehalem watersheds.

"What we're interested in from our level, is where exactly do we need to put wood," said Ferdun. Using the report's results, the watershed council has started at least three projects in the area, and has approached the Oregon Department of Forestry with proposals for additional projects.

Boswell's survey of the Youngs Bay watershed should be done by summer, and the upper Nehalem's data should be completed next year, he said. He's proposing similar projects to other watershed councils, and said that he's hoping to start using the reports to conduct habitat improvement projects himself.

"I think it's become a powerful tool to guide restoration work," Boswell said.

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