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Zap! Biologists put current in the current

Netters move fast to capture paralyzed fish as Justin Hart (holding yellow wand) sends the electricity into Huntington Creek.

Sun Advocate Reporter

There they were, lurking in the shadows, hiding in dark places waiting patiently for victims. Then came the jolt. Two hundred volts of pulsating DC electricity surrounded their bodies, causing instant paralysis. Then they were netted and taken into custody, booked and released.

Life was not easy for trout Tuesday morning in Huntington Creek. The Division of Wildlife Resources was conducting its yearly fall electroshock (now called electro-fishing) survey just below Electric Lake Dam.

The point of zapping fish is to collect long-term information on the health of the fishery, according to Justin Hart, assistant regional aquatics manager for the DWR. Huntington Creek, once a seasonal stream that had to be stocked every year, has run year-round since the early 1970s when Utah Power (now PacifiCorp) built the dam to assure a steady supply of water for its power plants downstream in the canyon. Today the creek does not need restocking.

When the power company cut back the outflow from Electric Lake about nine years ago to conserve water, there was some concern that the reduced stream flow might jeopardize the habitat. Hart said DWR began taking annual surveys of the stream to measure any trends.

So far, he said, it looks like things are just fine.

The survey is a team effort, and on this one there were DWR employees, representatives of PacifiCorp and volunteers from USU-CEU led by biologist (and former interim CEU president) Mike King.

It began with installing temporary mesh dams at the up- and downstream ends of the survey area, about a tenth of mile apart. There would be no escape for anybody on the stretch.

Then the team, all wearing waders, entered the creek. Hart was rigged with a backpack containing a heavy 24-volt battery wired to a long, yellow fiberglass pole with a metal loop on the end. As he slogged upstream, waving the wand from side to side under water and poking the loop into likely fish hideouts, flankers carrying long-handled fish nets followed.

Netters have to be sharp-eyed and quick-moving, because as soon as the fish come twitching to the surface they get carried away in the rapids. Netted fish go into a bucket filled with enough water to keep them alive for counting, measuring and weighing. The electric field extends about six feet from the loop, but that depends on the conductivity of the water. A headwater stream like this doesn't conduct electricity as well as desert waters that have leached minerals out of the soil.

Nevertheless, Hart and the crew got their limit. He estimated 60 to 80 fish captured, mostly brown trout. A cursory look showed that they looked well-fed.

After recording the data, the fish get to go home.

"It's harmless, but they probably won't feel like eating any flies for the rest of the day," commented DWR regional aquatics manager Paul Birdsey. "They're saying, 'What was that?'"

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