Featured Scientist

  • December 24, 2018

man standing in river pool surrounded by large boulders and hillside
Scott Harris participates on fish survey on the Middle Fork Eel River. CDFW Photo by Amanda Ekstrand.

Scott L. Harris is an environmental scientist with CDFW’s Northern Region, based in Mendocino County. Scott is responsible for monitoring and managing salmonid populations in the Eel River and Mendocino coast watersheds as part of the North Central District Salmon and Steelhead Management Project, a multi-faceted effort funded through the Sport Fish Restoration Act (SFRA). His fieldwork includes counting adult salmon and steelhead through spawning ground surveys and ladder counts at the Van Arsdale Fisheries Station (VAFS), counting juvenile salmonids migrating to the ocean and determining resident trout distribution in the Mendocino National Forest. Much of his time is spent at the VAFS fish ladder studying the biological effects of water releases from the Potter Valley Project (PVP). He also consults on fish passage issues, evaluating man-made structures (fish ladders, etc.) at road crossings to determine whether they are damaged, blocked or in need of cleaning, and whether the design is adequate to meet the need.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

The “what” is water. I am fascinated with water, salt or fresh. I grew up in Southern California and spent most of my time at the beach. When I was about 10, I was instantly hooked on the ocean when I first put a mask on and saw what was taking place under the waves. At about the same age, I found a local stream and was mesmerized by the number of animals that lived in and around that stream. Then came my love affair with PBS, NOVA, Wild Kingdom, the local library, etc. I’m guessing a lot of folks went through a similar progression.

The “who” probably started with Carl Sagan, Marlin Perkins (and, of course, Jim Fowler, Perkins’ assistant), my friend’s mom (a science teacher) and my dad (an engineer). Today I am surrounded by many colleagues who feed my interest in science and I would bet these folks are inspirational for many others, young and old.

My fascination with water continues today with my job. However, my work with the department requires the understanding of the physical aspects of water, not just the biological aspects. In stream restoration, it is necessary that one understands hydrology and fluvial (movement of sediment in water) processes.

What is a typical day like for you at work?

If there was a typical day, I would probably quit! There are days when I am greeted at my door by hunters that need a bear or deer validated. When a hunter takes a deer or bear, the animal must be reviewed and then some paperwork is completed indicating that the take was legal. In addition, a tooth must be extracted from bears. The tooth is used to determine age and this information is used as a tool in management of our black bear populations. Sometimes I’m asked to pull a bear tooth in the Safeway parking lot or at the gas station. This is not exactly fisheries but I absolutely believe I am part of a team. Typically, if I receive a call before 9 a.m., I know my day will change and that someone needs help. Many days include a wild card. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

I am one of the lucky ones. During the year, I spend 90 percent of my time in the field. So, 90 percent of the year, I leave my office excited and with a smile on my face, ready to learn something new or hopefully teach someone something new.

What is your favorite species to interact with or study?

For those who know me, they know how important herps and birds are to me. I bring that knowledge to many of my colleagues. However, there are two species that I have a special fondness for: The Middle Fork Eel River summer Steelhead and the Pacific Lamprey.

We conduct an annual free dive/snorkel survey on the Middle Fork Eel River that was named the “Death March” 30 or more years ago. This 26-mile, five-day survey is conducted in the Middle Eel/Yolla Bolly Wilderness located in Trinity and Mendocino counties with the intent to enumerate adult summer Steelhead. Dozens of department employees have been on the Death March over the years and I guarantee that they have yet to forget it. This annual survey began in 1966.

In 2009, I took over the activities at the Van Arsdale Fisheries Station located in the upper Eel River. Through our activities there, Pacific Lamprey became a target species for study. I have been collaborating with two people, Damon Goodman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Stewart Reid with Western Fishes, both of whom are known for their background and expertise on Pacific Lamprey. We have all learned some amazing things about Pacific Lamprey. There has already been one “white” paper written from this work and I believe there are at least another two in the making.

What aspect of working on monitoring salmonid populations is the most challenging?

The projects that are most challenging are typically those with numerous stakeholders or interested parties. I have been involved with the Willits Bypass for decades and this project has seen multiple agencies and interested parties over time. Keep in mind, the Willits Bypass was started in 1955, so the number of interested parties could be considered myriad. Another project with a high number of interested parties is the PVP. With the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing effort underway for the PVP, things are getting interesting.

What is the most rewarding project that you have worked on for CDFW?

There are a few projects that come to mind, but the one that I will tell you about is more about how I have volunteered my time as a mentor. About 10 years ago, a neighbor introduced me to her son, Bryan. Bryan needed a science fair project. Before we decided on a project, I thought it would be good to involve Bryan in some of the fieldwork we conduct. So, he ended up getting a taste of salmon spawning ground surveys, juvenile outmigrant trapping, backpack electrofishing – he even participated in the infamous Death March.

The project we decided on was, to say the least, controversial. The title of the project was “Why is there no water in Alder Creek.” And yes, this project had everything to do with the effect of pot growing on aquatic resources. We conducted the fieldwork on weekends due to Bryan’s school schedule and we worked on maps and tables in the evenings. This project led to numerous field visits with department enforcement and Bureau of Land Management enforcement. Things got a little hairy in the field. It also led to a few threats over the phone. The bottom line is, Bryan’s project won first place at the state level and he even got to have lunch with retired Governor Deukmejian. I remain in touch with Bryan to this day, I suppose, as a father figure.

What is the most challenging aspect of your career as an environmental scientist?

For myself, and probably for most of us in the department who conduct monitoring, research and habitat restoration, it is resources. Not having resources (money) to implement more of what we are already doing is maddening. The challenge is to be OK with so little help.

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

In, at least, our state’s three largest rivers (Sacramento, Klamath and Eel) I would like to see aquatic habitat (rivers, estuaries, lagoons, vernal pools, etc.) restoration of every conceivable type take place, and as quickly as possible. With the implementation of the restoration would come monitoring the effectiveness of the implementation by evaluating the response by plants, animals and the physical environment.

Any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

Certainly, education plays a key role when it comes to our natural resources and science. Education also includes get involved in internships and/or volunteering. I have mentored 15 AmeriCorps members, two of whom went on to get doctorate degrees in fisheries ecology.

Top photo: Scott Harris hoists a bucket during a fish rescue on Feliz Creek. CDFW photo by Derek Acomb

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