Tropical storm Bertha aftermath: juvenile stock survey and mainstem stocking monitoring

Trying to assess the impact of extreme spates on our juvenile stocks is a long held ambition and something I promised to do at the Spey Fshery Board AGM two years ago. Big Bertha provided the ideal oportunity with pre event electrofishing survey data available and the low water in September providing ideal conditions for repeat surveys.

The Spey up in amongst the trees on the 11th Aug 2014

The Spey up in the trees on the 11th Aug 2014

For the monitoring strategy we decided to replicate some of the timed surveys in the Spey mainstem and River Fiddich. Eleven timed sites were repeated on the Spey and four in the lower Fiddich. The results were interesting with a statistically significant reduction in the fry counts but an increase (although not significant) in the parr counts. The three Spey mainstem sites with the largest reductions in fry counts were all in areas where the riverbed was liable to become mobilised during the peak of the spate. There was less of a change in the pre and post spate counts in more stable parts of the river.

We found evidence of downstream movement of juvenile fish, something that was particularly evident in the Fiddich where the thermal uplift from the distillery cooling water has unique effects.

The salmon fry numbers overall in the Spey survey sites after the spate were close to the average for the whole Spey in 2014 summer surveys. In the Fiddich the decline was greater although from a higher base level. The study raised as many questons as it answered. For example how many fry would we normally expect to find in September compared to the usual monitoring time of July? I would probably expect to find similar numbers in September as the bulk of the overwinter mortality probably occurs in the autumn onwards.

The perceived wisdom is that although fry numbers are lower now than they would have been if there had been no damaging spate the survival of those remaining should be better due to less competition. We hope that this will be the case although we will have to wait until next years surveys to establish that. The 2015 smolt production will almost certainly be impacted by the big spate and the subsequent fish kill but no doubt nature has its ways of compensating.

Following the Bertha spate a decison was made to stock the 50,000 lower Spey origin hatchery fish back into the lower mainstem rather than into lower river tributaries. We were able to monitor the impacts of this stocking as the stocked fish were adipose fin clipped by the Spey ghillies. The fin clipping allowed us to successfully identify the stocked fish so that their contribution could be assessed.

The results from the stocking monitoring and the post spate monitoring can be read by clicking here.

Spey Fishery Board

Bertha leaves her mark

We were promised a wet and windy night from the tail of Hurricane Bertha and she certainly delivered. Looking at the river level websites it appears as if the whole of the Spey catchment was affected by heavy overnight rain and strong winds. The local burns at Knockando were very high this morning with the Spey mainstem still rising until about 12 noon. In the Aberlour area the river was up on the floodplain with some of the locals saying it was as high as they had seen. The river was transporting a huge volume of debris downstream, mainly tree trunks and branches, along with all the other accumulated debris from a couple years of relatively low water.

The Spey at Aberlour, hopefully it will peak soon.

The Spey at Aberlour, the river level here peaked at noon.

The weeks of nice summer weather experienced in July must seem a distance memory for some already. The farmers took advantage and made hay but these bales will probably not be much good now.

Make hay whilst the sun shines!

All that hard work for this

On the walls of one of the old railway line underpasses in Aberlour there are marks showing the levels of previous flood events. The Nov 2000 flood level was exceeded this morning although it would have to rise another 18″ to reach the July 1970 level.

Historic flood levels on an Aerlour underpass

Historic flood levels on an Aerlour underpass

This is my third year here and this is by far the biggest flood event in that time. The fishing will be out of action for a couple days for sure but of greater concern is whether these big flood events have any significant impact on juvenile fish stocks in the river. We have recently surveyed the mainstem using the timed electrofishing protocol so if we get the chance, and assuming that river levels drop back sufficiently, it would be good to repeat some of these sites to re-assess salmon fry numbers. I spoke to one of the ghillies at the lower end of the river this morning and whilst the river was still rising down there it wasn’t yet at the level of the 2009/10 floods. Looking at the history of flood events it is remarkable how often August features in flooding records; it is a month that can deliver intense rainfall.

However, it is never all negative with these things and the Ranunculus will hopefully have taken a hammering; as will other invasives such as himalayan balsam which have been spreading over some of the river gravel bars. We can only hope that not too much damage has been done to our juvenile fish stocks and other wildlife along the river.

Spey Fishery Board