Small projects add up. That’s the Nature Conservancy’s approach to helping fish.
This week, with the blessings of a private land owner and a group of volunteers, it removed a culvert in a tiny tributary of the Little Susitna River near the Palmer-Fishhook highway.
Culverts speed up the flow of water, which makes it harder for younger salmon to swim upstream.
Instead, they need kinder, gentler currents to reach waters that offer more protection and more nutrients.
Ferns, grass and other plants that line the banks of streams help to do that. And culverts don’t.
ConocoPhillips gave about a dozen staffers and summer interns in its Anchorage office the day off to dig up plants and move them to the new shoulders of the creek, created when the culvert was removed.
Corrine Smith, the Mat-Su project director for the Nature Conservancy, says urbanization for fish is like death by a thousand cuts.
“It’s a tiny project,” said Smith, “but what we’re finding is, and it’s certainly the case in the Lower 48, that the loss of salmon there is due to a bunch of tiny cuts. It’s this road, and this culvert, and the channelization of this stream.”
Smith says this is the third year in a row that ConocoPhillips has participated in what the Conservancy has dubbed a “salmon field day.”
“This is part of a much broader effort,” says Smith. “There’s a lot of people working on stream restoration, fish passage in particular in the Mat-Su.”
For interns like Kayli Eckert, a petroleum engineering student from Norman, Oklahoma, it was a chance to get some hands on experience.
Eckert helped to take water samples to find out what kind of bugs live in the stream.
“I had no clue that there were some bugs that were actually indicators of polluted water, and then some bugs that are pollutant intolerant,” said Eckert.
The good news: bugs that cannot survive in a polluted stream are alive and well in the creek where the culvert was removed.
Smith says it’s good for future petroleum engineers to have a direct connection with the land.
“There’s always mitigation that happens around any and all gas development,” says Smith.
The culvert project also helps coho salmon, which are notorious for spawning in the furthest reaches of the smallest streams -- another reminder that when it comes to fish, thinking small is also thinking big.