New Research Project on the Willamette River

Researchers and crew aboard “Sparky,” the OSU Fisheries & Wildlife research vessel, filing out data sheets containing fish community and habitat information.

There’s more than one way to catch fish on the Willamette River, and community members from Newburg down to Eugene may get a glimpse of one of the most shocking methods this summer. A crew of researchers from Oregon State University will be cruising up and down the Willamette on an electrofishing boat this summer conducting fisheries research as part of a collaborative study between OSU and the US Forest Service (USFS) led by Research Fisheries Biologist Dr. Brooke Penaluna 

An extension of a previously conducted study of the biodiversity and fish community of the river, this summer’s project is the beginning of a multi-year investigation of how the findings of the initial project have changed – or how the fish communities, the fish locations, and other qualities of the river look different compared to a decade before.  

“It’s a really cool project,” said Francisco Pickens, the Boat Conductor and Crew Lead of the project, “especially this year, because there are additional projects stemming of it, like looking at plastic loading in sculpin, aquatic animal eDNA in the water, and general water quality of the river.”  

If you see Sparky, the OSU research vessel being used for the work, on the water this summer, it’s no cause for alarm. Because of its appearance, with the boats two large electrical anodes hanging over the bow and the frenzy of activity typically occurring on deck, many concerned citizens have called the police after sighting the crew from the shores in the past. But no need to worry – yes, the crew has the necessary permits and approvals from the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) and the USFS. And no, the fish caught and identified during the study are not harmed.  

Researchers and crew sit on the banks identifying fish after conducting an electrofishing survey of the mainstem Willamette River while “Sparky,” the research vessel, is anchored behind them.

Sparky works by dipping its two overhanging spider web-looking contraptions – which are electrical anodes – into the water. They pass an electrical current to and around the metal boat, which works as the cathode. This electrical current temporarily stuns the fish, which is why there’s lots of shouting and activity onboard. While Pickens drives the boat, his two crew members use eight-foot-long nets to retrieve the stunned fish quickly from the water before they regain the ability to swim away.  

It may look and sound like crazy work to onlookers on the shores, but it’s incredibly important as a means of understanding the health of the Willamette River.  

If we weren’t monitoring what’s going on in the fish communities and water quality, we wouldn’t know the health of the environment,” Pickens said. The health of the environment impacts the health of our communities and our town. It’s important to understand changes over time especially as we are expanding our footprint across the landscape. We wouldn’t know if things were changing if we never monitor it. 

A large diversity of fish species are caught and identified by the crew throughout the Willamette, even right around Corvallis. Both native and non-native fish – including tank-released goldfish – have been caught by the crew just in their first few days on the river this summer. As Sparky continues through its weeks of official monitoring, there will be more to report.  

The Corvallis Advocate plans to write a follow-up article on the findings of the research project at the end of the summer.  

By: Lauren Zatkos