Main content area

Long-Term Trends in Abundance and Size of Sport Fishes in the Flathead River, Montana, Following Changes in Hydroelectric Dam Operations

Barfoot, Craig A., Evarts, Les A., Lukacs, Paul M.
Northwest science 2018 v.92 no.2 pp. 92-106
Esox lucius, Micropterus dolomieu, Oncorhynchus, Salmo trutta, dams (hydrology), fish, fish communities, game fish, rivers, Montana
We studied long-term trends in catches per unit effort (CPUE; fish h⁻¹) of four sport fish taxa in the Flathead River, Montana, following changes in hydroelectric operations at the Sliš Ksanka Qisp Project (SKQP; formerly Kerr Dam). Prior to 1997 SKQP operations caused frequent, unnatural flow fluctuations. In 1997 the dam was changed from a power-peaking and load-following facility to a base-load facility. The new operations included seasonal minimum flows and ramping rates that greatly reduced flow fluctuations. Autumn trends in CPUEs of two size classes (substock and stock) of northern pike (Esox lucius), Oncorhynchus spp., brown trout (Salmo trutta), and smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu) were monitored using nighttime electrofishing during 1984–86 before operational changes and again at the onset of operational changes in 1998 and continuing through 2008. We observed little difference in CPUEs between 1984–86 and 1998, the first year after changes, but we documented strong increasing trends in CPUEs of both sizes of all taxa, except stock northern pike, over the long term following operational changes. We also examined long-term patterns in the size structure (total length; TL mm) of fishes following operational changes. All taxa had either initial downward shifts in median TL, decreases in minimum sizes of fish captured, or both, a pattern consistent with enhanced recruitment and survival of smaller fishes. We conclude that modifications in dam operations were associated with increases of four sport fish taxa in the Flathead River and that similar normative flow applications might benefit riverine fish populations elsewhere.