Featured Scientist

  • June 26, 2020

scientist standing on a rocky ledge throwing a net into a river with bushes in background
Setting a trap on the West Fork San Luis Rey River.

scientist in a boat on the river holding a small green fish with tall grass in the background
Collecting sample for tissue analysis, San Diego River.

scientist adding rocks to the river standing on the dirt bank with dry weeds in background
Creating spawning beds for rainbow trout, Sweetwater River.

Russell Barabe is a coldwater fisheries biologist based out of CDFW’s South Coast Region office in San Diego. Though he grew up San Jose, where his mom was a nurse and his dad was a facilities maintenance supervisor, Russell’s family frequently went camping and trout fishing in Shasta County. Russell was an Environmental Studies student at San Jose State University when a summer internship with the Student Conservation Association introduced him to researching fire effects at different national parks. He was hooked on the idea of working in the great outdoors as much as possible. A Master’s degree in fisheries biology at Mississippi State University put him on the path to becoming a CDFW biologist, where he’s been employed since 2009. His first duties included enforcing lake and streambed alteration regulations.

You’re a west coast guy – what was it like completing your education at Mississippi State?

It was really cool working in the Southeast and seeing fisheries from a whole different perspective. Down there, largemouth bass are native; same with bluegill, greenfish, sunfish, and catfish. I actually studied the recovery of catfish in the coastal rivers after Hurricane Katrina. We were tagging catfish and doing mark-recapture, and then we did a full-on age analysis of flathead catfish in the Pascagoula River, which is one of the largest, last remaining undammed watersheds in the lower 48.

As a fisheries biologist based in San Diego, what does your job entail?

My primary areas are San Diego and Orange County, and I was recently assigned to the Sespe Watershed, which is all the way up in Ventura County. I do a lot of monitoring of coldwater fish populations. That includes rainbow trout, both native and non-native. I also monitor other native species like Arroyo Chub. If something goes sideways, then we come to the rescue.

What’s an example of something going sideways?

Another fish population I monitor down here is the Unarmored Threespine Stickleback. Last year we had a really large storm event come through and this population of fish is right out on the edge of the Anza Borrego Desert. This storm came through and dumped a whole bunch of rain in a short period of time and ended up washing a lot of sediment into the stream. By doing that, it made the whole stream really shallow. Later in July and August, the water started percolating into the sand and there was no habitat for the fish. Because we were going to lose these fish if we didn’t do something, we got approval to do a rescue. We went out there and grabbed as many of the fish as we could and took them to another area where we can get them to water. Fully grown, that fish might be two inches long.  

San Diego is known for its ocean fishing opportunities. Do you find that people are surprised to hear there’s a coldwater fisheries biologist in the San Diego area? Can you describe the rivers and streams where you work?

San Diego is unique. I’ll talk with my colleagues up north who do work for the Heritage Wild Trout program as well. They have rivers that are 50 to 100 miles long and they sample little sections and then extrapolate the numbers out to get an idea of what’s going on. In my case, I have a section up in the mountains that still holds native trout but it’s only four miles long. I’ll decide to go camp out there for three days and snorkel everything, because I can. It’s also very difficult work because there are no trails, you're basically hiking in a stream with a full backpack and you often fall down. You’re fighting through brush and poison oak, and of course there are ticks, ants and rattlesnakes.

A snorkel survey is pretty much as it sounds, right? Face down, on your stomach, in a cold river, trying to count fish?

Correct. We just put on the mask and we have a wetsuit and we put our face in the water. With a flashlight we look under every rock to count them and try and put them into size classes. We try and do that every year so that we can track the population and say, okay, in 2017 we saw 400 and then in 2018, we only saw 30.

How do you guarantee you’re not counting the same fish over and over?

First, we always snorkel in an upstream direction. Second, if the stream is wide, we use enough snorkelers to cover the whole width. Down here, two is usually enough. Third, you only count a fish once it swims past you downstream. This way if a fish swims circles around you, you do not count it each time. If you get to the head of a pool and the fish have not swam past you, you then count those fish. This technique can be difficult if a lot of fish are present, but in Southern California, this is rarely a problem. If using more than one snorkeler, communication is important to discuss if the fish that swam between us was counted by me or the other person.

Don’t fish tend to go the other direction when you make yourself very present like that?

The surprising thing is that most fish will tolerate you when you’re snorkeling. They'll look at you a little warily but as long as you don’t try to reach out and touch them they’ll swim near you. But if you get too close, they take off and go hide under a rock.

Is there a particular project you are proud of, because you know that your work made a difference?

I would refer to some work I did on the only population of native rainbow trout left in San Diego County. There had been a report there were non-native bullhead (catfish) found in that part of the stream system. Everyone was worried about the bullhead competing with the trout, so we went out there to get genetic samples for a project to try and look at the heterozygous study of that population. (Low heterozygosity means a lack of genetic diversity. High heterozygosity means high genetic diversity.)

We were camping for the night and I said, “Why don’t we bring out a couple of traps that we have, and we’ll bait them with cat food, and we’ll throw them out just for the heck of it and maybe we’ll catch a bullhead or two.” I thought it might make a small difference. We threw out the traps and ended up catching over 30 bullhead. I thought, this is interesting, this works! When I got back to the office, I dove into the literature to see if I could find anything about anyone doing anything like that. I found a couple of projects, but no references to someone using this specific trap or using a similar technique. So we designed a study where we would use a lot of nets and cat food, and go out on trips of three days. We’d set the traps overnight because bullhead are nocturnal. On the first day, we’d set the traps in the evening. The next day, we’d walk down the stream and set our next set of traps, and camp for the night. The last day, we’d pull out the traps and then hike out. That first year we did that, we ended up removing 1,300 bullhead.

The next year, I figured we’d need to go back and do it again because the chances we’d removed everything were pretty slim. But when we went back, we trapped the entire stream and we didn’t catch a single bullhead. We went back the year after that, and we still didn’t catch anything. Removal of this invasive species is likely to benefit the native rainbow trout through a reduction in competition and possible predation.

I submitted a publication based on that bullhead work and is currently in press. It’s supposed to come out sometime this year in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management. 

In a 40-hour week, how many hours are spent in those river settings vs. sitting at a desk and writing up reports?

I’m usually getting out three days a week. Because traffic can be so bad down here, travel times to a lot of these places is really tough. To get to that population of native trout I mentioned, it’s a two-hour drive. And then there’s another a two-hour hike to get to where the fish are. So it’s an eight-hour day just to get to and from where the fish are. I’ll do 12- to 16-hour days on a regular basis. It’s easy to fall behind on your emails and reports!

How would your job change if you had unlimited time and an unlimited budget?

Well, I’d love to have a helicopter to make it easier for my back country trips. Just drop me off and pick me up, that would be a great start! Every year this job gets harder. I’m 47 and I have a tech who’s 20 years younger than me. I can usually keep up with him … he might hike a little faster than me, but I’m not far behind!  

CDFW Photos

Categories: Featured Scientist
  • August 7, 2019

Two white males kneeling with bows and arrows next to deceased turkey on wooden cart. Young white boy kneeling on cart, behind turkey.
In the Fish family, hunting and fishing is a family affair. Max Fish, right, accompanied by his son and brother, pose for a photo after a successful archery hunt for wild turkey.

White male wearing grey, black, and yellow jacket and black pants holding up large halibut standing next to white female wearing black pants and blue jacket with hood up holding large halibut. Both are standing on a boat on the water. Partly cloudy sky in background.
Fishing in Alaska, Max and his wife, Carly, show off their catch.

White male wearing blue t-shirt, ball cap, and sunglasses holding fishing rod in one hand and small fish in another standing on beach next to young girl and young boy. Overcast sky and water in background.
As a father of two young children, Max makes it a priority to take his kids fishing, hunting and into the outdoors every chance he gets. Max and his son, Ryland, and daughter, Ellie, spend time surf fishing in Southern California.

There is not a more appropriately named employee anywhere within CDFW than Max Fish. An environmental scientist with the Inland Fisheries Assessment and Monitoring Program, Max is tasked with, well, helping to maximize fish and fishing opportunities within California’s inland lakes and reservoirs. He is based in West Sacramento.

The tools of his trade include the heavy duty, Smith-Root SR18 electrofishing boat he captains, a research vessel that can pump 170 to 1,000 volts of electricity through the water, temporarily stunning fish to the surface in order to survey populations and assess health in the state’s inland waters.

From Kokanee Salmon to crappie and catfish, Max works with more than three dozen inland fish species found in California. He also collects and analyzes all the data submitted by tournament anglers and fishing contests throughout the state.

Born and raised in Palo Alto, Max earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife and fish conservation biology from UC Davis and joined CDFW shortly after graduating in 2007.

You’ve seen the data from all the big bass tournaments. Where would you send someone interested in catching a really big black bass?

We have several species of black bass in California, which are largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, Alabama and redeye.

My area of expertise is really in northern California. I’d start with any of our central California lakes that have Kokanee Salmon populations. California holds the world record for Alabama Bass out of New Bullards Bar Reservoir (Yuba County). For awhile, it seemed like New Bullards Bar would kick out a new world record bass every season. Right now, the world record fish is sitting at just about 11 ½ pounds.

For Largemouth Bass, we don’t have the world record but we’re close. Of the top 25 largest Largemouth Bass ever caught anywhere in the world, 20 have come from California – all from Southern California lakes. In northern California, it’s hard to beat the quality of large fish in Clear Lake (Lake County) and the California Delta.

Tell us about the special projects you’re involved with.

I work on a program to promote and expand Sacramento Perch. Sacramento Perch are the only species of sunfish native to California. They are the only native sunfish west of the Rockies. They are now extirpated from their native range in California, which was the Delta, but we’ve got them in about 20 lakes where they’ve been translocated.

We’ve been trying to promote the Sacramento Perch on a variety of fronts – for private industry, for private stocking and recreational angling. There are a lot of private landowners who are really interested in native fish, especially native gamefish that are warm-water tolerant. There’s really only one – and that’s the Sacramento Perch. So we’ve been working on that front. We’ve collected all the tissue samples to identify which populations are more genetically robust, more diverse and suitable to create new populations.

Can Sacramento Perch be reintroduced into the Delta or are there too many other predatory fish there now?

The literature shows that predators aren’t as big of a problem as are competitors. Sacramento Perch evolved in California when the main competitors on the valley floor were Pikeminnow and Steelhead. All the introduced sunfish from the Midwest had dozens of competitors they had to compete with so they developed breeding strategies and feeding strategies that are really aggressive.

Sacramento Perch just don’t have that. So when you put them in an environment with a bunch of Green Sunfish or Bluegill or Redear Sunfish, they just seem to get pushed out over the course of a few years. So that’s been, I think, by far the biggest challenge in trying to expand them. All of our surface waters in the Sacramento Valley and the foothills have sunfish in them.

But when you talk to people about Sacramento Perch, they get super excited to hear about a native gamefish that’s warm-water tolerant. You can stock them in a pond and they will do great. They will survive under ice. As far as environmental conditions go, they are super tolerant.

What’s happening with California’s landlocked salmon such as Kokanee and Chinook?

One of the things I’m doing now is a mark and recapture study of Kokanee Salmon. Last year, we began marking fish by clipping the adipose fins of all the Kokanee we stocked into Stampede Reservoir (Sierra County). Stampede Reservoir is our brood stock water for Kokanee Salmon. In lakes like Stampede where there is natural recruitment and a stocking allotment it’s tough to make management decisions when you don’t know what relative contributions either of those make to the fishery. By fin-clipping those fish when we stock them, we can see how many return to spawn or how many show up in anglers’ catches. We can see the relative number of hatchery fish versus natural fish and determine if we are stocking too many, too few and adjust our stocking accordingly. In 2019, we released marked Kokanee into New Melones Reservoir (Calaveras/Tuolumne counties).

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to undertake?

I’d do two. One is create a Sacramento Perch broodstock facility. Like I said, we have an idea from our genetic work on where to get our broodstock, but there is the question of where to put them. We’d like something on state lands that we can control. A natural pond could function as a production facility as well as a grow-out facility but finding something that doesn’t already have non-native fish and has a secure water source that is not going to go dry is a challenge. A solar-powered well would be perfect. We could dig a pond, put in a well, know that we would have good water – but all of that costs money. We are headed there but it is slow going.

I’d also expand our Kokanee mark and recapture study. Instead of fin-clipping 40,000 Kokanee a year, I would love to do all of the Kokanee we plant – but that’s the expensive part. Collecting the data on the back end isn’t too bad. We use creel surveys of angler-caught fish. At least in Stampede, that’s where we collect our eggs so we are seeing all the fish that come up the river to spawn anyway. Maybe we wouldn’t have to fin-clip all of the fish but at least the ones we stock into lakes with naturally reproducing populations. We could get a lot more data a lot more efficiently.

What advice would you give a young person today thinking about a career in natural resources?

If you haven’t already, read “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold. That book had an impact on me and still does to this day. I think it’s a valuable read for anyone going into this field.

What about the book spoke to you?

It’s just the way Aldo Leopold viewed the natural world and the way we as human beings fit into it.

Away from work, where are we most likely to find you?

Usually fishing, hunting, backpacking or otherwise spending time with family. It depends on the season. In the spring, I really enjoy turkey hunting and fishing – stripers in the river, and Kokanee, bass and crappie in lakes. In the fall, I’m deer hunting, duck hunting, crabbing, and fishing for rockfish.

I hunt and fish for food – not out of necessity but because I feel more integrated into the natural world and more connected to the earth. I think it’s a uniquely satisfying experience in our society that’s increasingly disconnected from the earth. It’s what Aldo Leopold wrote a long time ago that holds true today: “There is value in any experience that reminds us of our dependency on the soil, plant, animal, man food chain.”

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Max Fish captains a CDFW electrofishing boat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in January to help collect Largemouth Bass for live display at the International Sportsmen’s Exposition in Sacramento in January.

Categories: Featured Scientist
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