This is one in an ongoing series of posts by artist Elizabeth Conner, artist in residence on the Tolt River. Elizabeth is working with scientists who are monitoring the river in the aftermath of a recent restoration project near Carnation. She will be formulating ways to share that information with the public.
Electrofishing (or e-fishing) is a sampling technique, widely adopted by the 1980’s, that uses electrical current to draw fish out of hiding places so they may be captured with nets, identified, measured and released. It is currently the most active way scientists can sample fish.
We are standing in an isolated, shallow, well-shaded, floodplain scour hole, where a newly-excavated exit channel for the Tolt meets the Snoqualmie River.
“This is loaded with fish; we’re probably catching a third of what is here.” Josh Latterell draws a long probe through shallow water while ecologist and marine biologist Kollin Higgins and Washington Conservation Corps volunteer Sarra Tekola deploy small nets to collect fish. The three-person team communicates easily, looking for more effective ways to do the work, in ever-changing on-site circumstances. “Let’s see if I can scoop right back into your net. Why don’t we try something: put your net in the water and follow me around. I have to watch and see if the mud wiggles; you know you are scooping too far down if you are digging up worms. Oh, now they are jumping into the net!”
An electrical current, produced by Josh’s battery-powered backpack-mounted electrofishing unit is used to create an electric field in the water; this field forces the fish to swim toward a ring called the anode; as the get close, they roll over, momentarily stunned, and are easily netted. . This is a delicate task, and team members are very careful to minimize potential harm to the fish. Josh and Kollin, who have a lot of experience with this technique, continually monitor the level of 200 to 300 volt electrical DC current, the effects of which are dependent on the conductivity of different sections of water. All fish are sensitive to the current, but their level of sensitivity depends on their body size. Over a hundred fish are collected in 15 minutes, a good-sized sample. This pool is likely an indirect result of the restoration project. “We haven’t even gotten into the channel yet.”
I enjoy eavesdropping on sampling-related musings. “Itty-bitty stickleback the size of puffed wheat, or arborio rice, prefer warm, shallow, stinky water. If you ever try to hold a stickleback, you realize immediately that they are armored.” Kollin and I also discuss the differences between his and Hans Berge’s fish measuring device. Like artists, scientists “make some of their own gear, unique to the person who is using it.”
As I stumble through high grass carrying some of the equipment, Josh calls me over to see something. He holds out a handful of what looks like mud and twigs, pulled up from the bed of the river. I suddenly realize that everything is moving. The clump is a collection of aquatic insects, caddis fly cases, and beetle larvae… living creatures that are “building stuff with the materials of the forest.” This is a vivid reminder of one of the things Josh told me last November: “the forest is fish habitat.”
The day is warm and sunny. The cadence of Kollin and Sarra’s call-outs of species and sizes, accompanied by bird calls, the sounds of insects and flowing water, and the heat, lull me into a bit of a reverie. It all sounds like music, and it looks like a picnic. Josh, sitting in the grass in a broad-brimmed straw hat, makes careful notes. I pick up my camera and shoot video. Perhaps the rhythmic chant of the fish count, accompanied by birdsong, may be a compelling artifact of the day, a potential component of art that could evoke the pace, precision and focus of recording change.
Photos by Elizabeth Conner, 2011