Top Gun of Sarufutsu

Just arrived in Hokkaido this week, and have settled into the Kasai Ryokan “Annex”.  A great little house on the main street of Onishibetsu, my home away from home for the next 4-5 weeks.  It is always fun to explore the meaning of Japanese names.  The name of this town means “devil river”.  “Oni”, I’m told, is an evil character from Japanese folklore (described in Wikipedia as a “… hideous, gigantic ogre-like creature with sharp claws, wild hair and two long horns growing from their heads.” No sightings have been made, but I wouldn’t be too surprised for yours truly to be fingered as one, given my current hirsute condition and gaijin ways.  The “betsu” at the end of the name is the Ainu (indigenous people of Hokkaido) name for river.  I am still trying to figure out where the “shi” comes in!

I arrived this year to snow, but not nearly as much as we saw last year.  It took a heroic effort to get us, and all our gear, to our study site last spring (trucks, cranes, sleds, snowmobiles).  This year, Kasai-san and Osanai-san whisked me by car right to the field site in less than 30 minutes from town. 



This is what my site looked like on the day following my arrival in Sarufutsu.  Much less snow than last year!


Speaking of gear, I’ve been a bit stressed this week worrying about my gear.  Part of it was shipped up from Tsukuba, but the main attraction (the shiny, new ARIS 3000 acoustic camera … cue the orchestra) was on a separate journey, starting in the east coast of the USA, but waylaid in customs at the Tokyo airport for nearly a week.  Michio earlier this week talked to a rather surly customs official. Their message to us was that we’d be “lucky” to get it this week.  I will spare you the theatrics, but, honestly, how could some custom official hold back our heroic quest to uncover the mysteries of itou?  The nerve.  It turns out we were “lucky” after all, and the white box from the US arrived at my front door today!  I tore it open like it was Christmas morning!  My magic camera! I’m smug in the knowledge that I am the first on the block to own one.  Well … renting one.  Suffice it to say, they are NOT cheap!


Oh, the joy!  My boxes arrive at my door step in downtown Onishibetsu.


Maybe it isn’t a Nimbus 3000, but it IS an ARIS 3000.

I was very pleased to discover today that the camera has a “control module”.  Once I held that in my hand, my testosterone surged.  I’ve always wanted to be in charge of a “control module”.  Of course, ignore the fact that this “control module” has only one button on it.  The green light means “go”, the red light means “stop”.  Nevertheless, I’m the self-declared top gun of the fish world.

The story gets stranger when you consider one of my benefactors for this trip, the Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi.  Maybe a story for another time!

So, along with my three amigos from Itou no kai (Osanai-san, Kasai-san, and Kawahara-san), we’ll don our waders and head for the river to set up tomorrow.

Another spring in Japan, tracking the giant salmon of Hokkaido

I arrived April Fools’ day in Japan.  I will be here for 3 months.  I am on a Fulbright fellowship.  I will chronicle my activities over this time.  My basic plan is to learn more about Japan, Japanese culture and people, and about the giant salmon of Japan, itou.  This spring I also have a unique opportunity to travel to Sichuan province in China – my first trip to that country.  I will describe more about that later.

I just finished my initial stay in Tsukuba, which is my “base camp” here in Japan.  It is known in Japan as “science city”, and is somewhat like the Research Triangle in North Carolina or Bethesda in Maryland. I work with my colleague and good friend Michio Fukushima, a scientist at the National Institute for Environmental Studies (analogous to our EPA).  He has devoted a lot of his career to studying one of the great rivers of the world, the Mekong River, in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, but he did some pioneering research on itou in Hokkaido in the early 1990s.  He’ll, of course, be a recurring character in this story.

I’m now planning on flying up to Hokkaido tomorrow.  I will leave Ninomiya House, a pleasant, if somewhat imposing, boarding house for visiting scientists and students.  One of its most appealing features (my wife, Jen, constantly reminds me) is the heated floors.  It is something to behold, and it is hard to be surly and disagreeable when your feet are continuously, gently warmed.

So this is pretty much my 2014 blog preamble.  I will pick things up once I arrive at my destination in Hokkaido – a small village called Sarufutsu, a special place I introduced you to in my blog last spring.


I have learned an indispensable Japanese phrase during this trip: “Otskaresama deshita” – rough translation being “we accomplished something great, together”.  The “together” part of that is uniquely Japanese – Americans are much less likely to admit that it was team work that made something great happen.  To the Japanese, this is really the name of the game.  A way of thinking that should take stronger hold in our country, I dare say!

Anyway, I am pretty stoked – we had a very successful field season.  The upstream passage of adult itou in the Sarufutsu River during this spring of 2013, something revealed to us for the first time, generated from our work in a little patch of “green space” in this northern rural corner of Japan.  And, apart from a rescue operation for a hapless male that beached itself in its frenzied effort to get up the river fast, this method involved no handling of the fish whatsoever – a pretty stealth operation to meet an important goal in conservation!

The Hokkaido Shimbun article.  Graph shows the count of the itou run, and I took that picture of a pair of itou on the spawning grounds.

The Hokkaido Shimbun article. Graph shows the count of the itou run, and I took that picture of a pair of itou on the spawning grounds.

This is a follow up article in the same newspaper, this time in color!

This is a follow up article in the same newspaper, this time in color!

And what of the final number?  335.  Sanbyaku san juu go. What does that mean in the grand challenge of conserving itou?  It is roughly twice what any of us predicted – that alone is a good news story that I hope will emerge and be heard.  And, be heard by a group much larger than the itou inner circle that I dwell in!  In fact, large enough to have us start scratching our head about whether there is enough spawning ground upriver to accommodate such a strong run of fish!

This was the itou redd-counting routine, with Kawahara-san in the lead.

This was the itou redd-counting routine, with Kawahara-san in the lead.

This gets me to the other dimension of our field work this spring.  We set out to estimate the number of fish and spawning nests (or redds produced in the bottom of the stream) in the spawning grounds upstream of our study site.  This has been the traditional way that itou enthusiasts have kept tabs on the population, and provides a way of roughly estimating how many fish a given stream can support.  A number of uncertainties creep in when one tries to derive a population estimate from redd counts, however.  Specifically questions arise like how many redds does an average female build (it is thought the number can vary typically between 1 and 3), what is the observer efficiency (that is, it is highly unlikely that a visual stream survey will count every single redd out there, so typically a redd count might be expanded based on this efficiency measure)?.  And, perhaps most importantly, it is hard work and sometimes involves some lucky timing to pull off a good redd count in any given year.

Sasa stems.

Sasa stems.

I teamed up with Kawahara-san (I introduced him in an earlier blog) to do these surveys in the main stem and 3 tributaries upstream of our study site.  We got a bit flummoxed with bad weather (high, turbid water that is the death knell for pulling off a decend redd count!).  And, that #**%#$ sasa!  That plant has devised a number of ways to discourage interloping humans.  It grows thick, which is its first line of defense.  Of course, many plants I encounter along stream banks in the US capitalize on this tactic.  Some other plants I know employ thorns as an effective deterrent … this, however, is far too conventional for the sasa.  As a clever alternative, they have extremely hard stems that are frequently matted down on the ground.  So much the better for walking through them, you think?  Well, add a bit of slope to the equation and some lingering ice and snow, and you have a botanical “slip and slide”.  Suffice it to say this won’t make you giggle like a kid!  And, if that sasa happens to be draped over a steep river bank (more often than not the case!), the plant is capable of delivering a “wedgie” that no pair of waders can guard you against.  A last, unspeakable act of defiance for a plant that you might regard as pretty in a bucolic picture of a Sarufutsu headwater stream.  To the intrepid itou watcher, beware of the sasa!  It kicks ass and takes names!

One fish, two fish

So, up to this point, I have not spent much time describing my research effort in Japan.  The most common question for people I meet for the first time  here is (no surprise): “So, what are you doing in Japan, and why do you care so much about itou?

Well, it is a bit of a long story, but suffice it to say it is a most unusual fish and it is worth spending some time to protect it to ensure it will survive long into the future in some sort of “wild state”.  The fact that the species is still hanging on in a country as developed as Japan is nothing short of miraculous.  Although by the name many people refer to it as, the “phantom fish”, it does have a pretty precarious existence here.  The story is very different across the border in Russia, but I’ll leave that story for another day.

I have the great fortune of working on really the last (more or less, scientists have a real hard time with absolutes) wild salmon river in Japan, the Sarufutsu, a wonderful river that I have already introduced you to in an earlier blog.  The main objective of my project is really quite simple … count the number of adult itou migrating up this river to spawn.  Specifically, the fish swimming up one of the major tributaries.  Folks working in the field of fisheries science could be accused of getting too preoccupied with simply counting fish – the reason I have gone to such extremes should make better sense to you as I work through this blog!

A flash of red.  A male itou swimming up the Sarufutsu River.  Our research effort aimed at counting them using an acoustic camera.  Photo by Maki-san.

A flash of red. A male itou swimming up the Sarufutsu River to spawn. Our research effort is aimed at counting them using an acoustic camera. Photo by Maki-san.

The way we are doing it is novel for this species … we are using an “acoustic camera” known as DIDSON (manufactured in the US, developed by a nice fellow named Ed Belcher – his company is Sound Metrics).  This piece of equipment essentially allows us to “see with sound”.  The business end of this machine is full of sound emitters and receivers .  These so-called transducers emit an array of tiny sound beams that go forth and echos return.  The machine assembles the data into really stunning imagery of whatever happens to be in front of the machine – fish, river boulders, ducks swimming by, wading people, etc.  Unlike a more conventional video camera, this system works day or night and can “peer” into the river even in the muddiest river conditions.

It was truly an heroic effort to get all our gear out to our site in a the deep Sarufutsu snow.  Pictures is Hantani-san and Shimizu-san, contemplating how to get all our gear on the snowmobile sled!

It was truly an heroic effort to get all our gear out to our site in a the deep Sarufutsu snow. Pictured is Hantani-san and Shimizu-san, contemplating how to get all our gear on the snowmobile sled!

Osanai-san (blue), Shimizu-san (red) and Fukushima-san (grey) work on building the frame that will support the cameras.

Osanai-san (blue), Shimizu-san (red) and Fukushima-san (grey) work on building the frame that will support the cameras.

So, Michio and I have pulled together a group of people to pull this off.  It involved a local conservation group (absolutely critical to the success of this project!), university folks, engineering consulting folks, and others.  We were fortunate to enlist Osanai-san, the president of Itou no kai (the local conservation group), who owns a local construction firm.  He had equipment and tools to assemble a frame to hold the camera in the river.  We spent a day assembling it and making sure the DIDSON was pointed in the proper direction across the river channel so we could effectively count every single itou that happened to swim past.  We got the system deployed and running on 10 April, and we intended to have it run continuously for nearly 40 days – the idea was to detect the fishing swimming up for spawning, and then swimming down after spawning was over.  That is 10 frames a second, every minute, every hour for 40 days.  That amounts to about 1.5 terabytes of imagery (that is 1500 GB or 1,500,000 MB or 1.5^9 Bytes).  And you thought you’ve amassed a lot of home video of your cat!

Mizuno-san, of University of Tokyo, with the acoustic camera known as DIDSON.

Mizuno-san, of University of Tokyo, with the acoustic camera known as DIDSON.

My main task become very clear from the get-go:  send power to the site, and return data.  This became a mind-numbing routine every day, if you want to know the truth (and I am sure you do!).  The routine involved shuttling car batteries out to the site, and harvesting data in the form of SD cards.  I think with a little ingenuity and some tinkering, the system could become more autonomous (solar or run-of-the river hydropower to maintain continuous power, and data streamed to a satellite).  Once I get this sorted out, the world will no doubt beat a path to my ryokan – imagine real-time coverage of itou passage enjoyed from the comfort of your own home – oh, the joy!

So, my organization spends a lot of time talking about “conservation baselines”, and whether we are “moving the needle” in our conservation work.  To me, as a scientist, I see the problem in a pretty straightforward way.  Let’s let the fish tell us how we’re doing – if we can come up with a simple and reproducible method to estimate the size of the population at time t, then we can come back at some later time (time t + 1) and recount the fish.  Or, better yet, set up an approach to do this every year to keep a continuous record.  So, does an agreement to practice forestry in the watershed in a way that reduces impact on critical habitat help maintain a “stable itou population”? Does keeping culverts clear of debri help itou maintain a certain level of abundance?  Does the growth of the recreational fishery for Sarufutsu itou have an effect on the size of the population?  These questions are nearly impossible to answer reliably in the absence of data – the work I am doing this year offers some hope that we can start getting some answers.

Over a two year period (I will be back next year on a Fulbright), I am focused on trying to accomplish this very thing – a relatively simple method to keep tabs of the itou population in this river. I am just now back from the field in the Tokyo area for some meetings, interviews with media, and some of what we call in the biz “post-processing” – the “grunt work” involved in whipping rough data into a more refined state for analysis and publications.  In the next blog, I’ll provide  a quick rundown on what we’ve learned.


Each time I visit Japan, and I get a bit deeper understanding of the Japanese psyche … perhaps best exemplified by the term gambari (頑張り), a Japanese word that describes their patience and determination.  I exhibit a fair dose of this, but it is easily overshadowed by many of the Japanese I have met over the years.  Many around the world know about the unrelenting work ethic of the Japanese in Tokyo – my travels and experiences have exposed me to another, less visible sector of the population.  These are the folks working in more “natural pursuits” – environmental science, conservation and natural history, particularly in the world of fisheries and aquatic sciences.

Even though much of the landscape in Japan has been profoundly transformed, there are many beautiful places left, if only in small parcels. Many of my Japanese scientific colleagues have documented what this development has meant for native fishes of Japan.  Pervasive dam building and modifications to stream channels for agriculture have left populations of fish that once migrated freely relegated to short stream reaches, often in very degraded conditions.  Many of the fishes, including ayu (or “sweet fish”), char, Pacific salmon, itou and others have lost a substantial amount of their natural range.  Many have “winked out”, a term commonly used in conservation biology to reflect a population unable to replace itself over time because of environmental threats.  I could go on about why we should care, but that will come later.

These colleagues have exhibited gamberi when it comes to understanding the current situation of these fishes, and asking and answering interesting questions about their ecology along the way (which, to me, is an honorable pursuit).  I have gotten to know a few scientists here who exhibit this, including my close colleague Michio Fukushima. Kentaro Morita is another.  Morita-san works at the Hokkaido National Fisheries Research Institute outside of Sapporo.  Someone recently told me he doesn’t think he sleeps.  He’s young and early in his career, but has generated many great publications, and is considered one of the top “char enthusiasts” – another cultish group of ichthyo-philes that I have gotten to know over the years.  Morita-san wins my award for the best meishi (business card), which sits on my desk dog-eared and a bit crumpled after pawing it so many years.  It has an inset picture of himself in wetsuit and mask, and holding a large char.  It elicits an immediate question – “How did he catch this fish?”  I haven’t asked him.

Morita-san's business card.  That little smirk of his says it all!

Morita-san’s business card.

Mitsuru Kawahara is another who exemplifies gamberi, but in a different and equally important pursuit – as an environmental steward and itou fanatic.  Kawahara-san works as a custodian at a local school in Sarufutsu, but his real love is itou and the rivers in this northern region of Japan.  Like no one else I have met, he’s finely attuned to the river, and spends a lot of time there.  And I mean a lot!  He claims his marriage failed because of this obsession.  His work schedule is not flexible, so his time in the field is fit around his work work schedule, mostly weekends but also after work when the daylength allows.  His English is broken, but good enough for me to understand what drives his passion.  He is a tall, sliver of a man, dark skinned (“like a Thai”, he tells me) and always seems to be sipping drinks. He handles hashi with a certain panache that I can’t help but admire.  He also has a great wit and easy going attitude, but he’s frank when it comes to things that annoy him.  He arrives every night at Kasai Ryokan exhibiting a unique Japanese swagger, clutching his briefcase, containing some interesting document related to itou and the river to show me.

Kawahara-san, imparting great wisdom about his corner of the natural world.

Kawahara-san, imparting great wisdom about his corner of the natural world.

I see him a bit as a tortured soul.  I can just imagine him at work, perhaps mopping up a mess at the school, with vivid images of the river and itou coursing through his mind.  “I would rather be at the river”, he often tells me. He really has a rare and special ability to see pattern and connection in nature, linking biological events to sights and sounds he observes in his treks through the mountains here.  He knows the ways of the frogs, salamanders, hawks, deer (shika, or “sheeka” here), and bears, and of course he can navigate through sasa with a level of finesse that I’ll never have.  While he admits he’s not a “superman” (he reserves that title for Itou no kai president Osanai-san … more on him later), I would venture to say he’s really there “where the rubber hits the road” in the grand itou conservation struggle.

This is the playing field.  Hard enough to wrestle the sasa (streamside bamboo), but need to stay focused on the river bottom!

This is the playing field. Hard enough to wrestle the sasa (streamside bamboo), but also need to maintain focus on the river bottom!

The spirit of gamberi among the Japanese does not always involve physical exertion.  Here my assistant Tanaka-san shows dogged determination to prevent his backpack from  leaving the earth's atmosphere.

The spirit of gamberi among the Japanese does not always involve physical exertion. Here my assistant Tanaka-san shows dogged determination to prevent his backpack from leaving the earth’s atmosphere.

Kawahara-san has been my trusted field guide. One of the most challenging parts of my project is surveying the headwater streams, counting spawning itou and the nests they create for their eggs.  It is hard physically and mentally.  An ability to “read the water” has been touted as a precious skill of the most successful fisherman; Kawahara-san has crafted a new skill of “reading the gravel”.  Specifically, identifying what is known in the biz as “redds”, or gravel nests built by female itou during the spawning process. Some scientists here, including Fukushima-san and another Ito scientist Edo-san, did some early, pioneering work describing the shape and qualities of itou spawning nests – the nest is a depression in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head, elongated, with Mickey’s ears oriented downstream (caused by the female itou’s tail fin digging into the gravel off the main axis of the nest).  The entire nest is perhaps as big as a large pizza, but it takes a keen eye to pick one out.  They occur only when certain “micro-conditions” exist in the stream channel, between a pool (deep, slow water) and a riffle (shallow, fast water).  Itou have an uncanny ability to sniff these spots out, nests that will serve their progeny well, an ability honed by natural selection.  Kawahara-san can sniff these out equally well above the stream surface – and let me tell you, it isn’t easy.  It involves some mental calculus combined with a rough search image.  Many factors play in, including the speed of the current, the slope of the river bottom, the location of the channel along the bend in the river, the size of the gravel, and the proximity to logs and other cover.  I’m beginning to get it, but Kawahara-san is the high priest.

During the first week of my stay in Sarufutsu, Kawahara-san guided me to some spawning itou in a neighboring watershed.  The female in the lower left of the photo is "digging a redd".

During the first week of my stay in Sarufutsu, Kawahara-san guided me to some spawning itou in a neighboring watershed. The female in the lower left of the photo is “digging a redd”.

Next blog I will include a description of my project and how it fits into the grand scheme of things.

The Itou Watchers of Sarufutsu

Over the years I have come to know a group of what can really only be described as itou fanatics here in Japan.  Because I don’t know the language, I know them in only a fairly superficial way, but anyone can quickly gauge the depth of their passion for these fish and this river.  There is a long history of itou curiosity among the Japanese going back many years.  It appears to have grown into an obsessive hobby for some, easily on par with bird or bear watching, but unlike these other pursuits, it takes an unusual drive and a good deal of specialized gear to take it the next level.  And, indeed, this group has done just that.  The enterprise involves wet and dry suits (the water is just above freezing!), mask/fin/snorkel, underwater cameras and lighting, and a willingness to trudge through snow and bamboo to get to the itou spawning grounds.  They are fueled primarily on green tea, fish and rice in its many forms (often served up as a “tailgate” out of their vehicles), and they won’t let any barrier get in their way to bringing home the most striking photographs and video masterpieces.

You never know when or where you'll encounter the itou watchers.  Here on the trail along the Karibetsu River.  And, yes, they are hiking in wet suits!

You never know when or where you’ll encounter the itou watchers. Here on the trail along the Karibetsu River. And, yes, they are hiking in wet suits!

Not a bigfoot sighting, but just another itou watcher!

Not a bigfoot sighting, but just another itou watcher!  Many take advantage of Golden Week, a national holiday to come watch itou.

A great friend and colleague, Maki-san.  Bears are his real passion, but he devotes a few days every spring to watch itou.

A great friend and colleague, Maki-san. Bears are his real passion, but he devotes a few days every spring to watch itou.

This year I got a peak at the most enigmatic of these itou watchers (Hasegawa-san), who has been coming to the same stream reach for 10 years and has “pet names” for all the fish he encounters.  While these itou watchers are a very accepting group, Hasegawa-san has been described to me as being “somewhat strange” – so I guess there are some social norms for itou watching that one needs to respect if you wish to be a member of this club!

As a biologist, I learned about the life history and reproduction in salmon and their relatives, but these folks have schooled me in an entirely different way.  These itou watchers have captured life history events in unprecedented style and detail.  They have captured fish on the move during migration, paired up male and females courting on the spawning nest, tumultuous male-male fighting for access to the female, the spawning act itself, females covering the nest with gravel following spawning, and even large fish chasing down prey in the shallows of lakes under cover of darkness.

If I were giving out awards, this one would win this year!  Two male itou battling it out for access to female.  This was given as a gift to Kasai-san.  It is now hanging proudly at the ryokan.

If I were giving out awards, this one would win this year! Two male itou battling it out for access to a female. This was given as a gift to Kasai-san. It is now hanging proudly in the lobby of the ryokan.

Each day here is punctuated with a celebratory presentation (often associated with copious amounts of sake!) at Kasai Ryokan, where images from the day are displayed on a huge monitor.  There is no doubt this is an exclusive men-only club, and it can easily be considered soft porn at the piscine level.  There comes a time each evening when there are lulls in the conversation, and participants grip their sake glasses and gaze at the scene of a male itou exhibiting the typical “crossing-over” and quivering courtship behavior to gauge the receptivity of the female and help synchronize the spawning act.  Many lament the way electronics and different forms of media have resulted in humans getting increasingly disconnected with the natural world, but I have to say this particular use of electronic media accomplishes the opposite – it helps us connect with the freshwater world in a wholly new way.  They interact with these fish with no hooks, no nets, no spears, no traps … perhaps this is the next level of angler evolution beyond catch and release.


Kasai-san and the author, preparing for another evening of critical reviews of itou footage from the day.

Kids, too, enjoy itou watching!

Kids, too, enjoy itou watching!

And add to the mix the extreme work ethic of the Japanese, and it is amazing what is produced from these efforts!  I have been given calendars, glossy publications, entire bound books, posters and photos that are just flat out amazing.  They offer glimpses into the freshwater world of Japan that few have witnessed.

As someone working at the interface of science and conservation, it just doesn’t get much better than this.  It is a truly dedicated and engaged community – stewards of the river in every sense of that word.  Golden week has now passed, and even the most ardent itou watchers are headed back home, planning on spending every spare moment in their overworked lives pouring over photos and film, and editing and composing the next generation of itou masterpieces.

Getting to Know Itou and this River

The focus of my time here in Japan is on a giant, coldwater fish that is only found in Asia … the group of fishes (there are five species) are known as taimen (“tie-men”, or if you are American “tay-men”) or huchen (“hoo-kin”, unless you are American, and you pronounce the “ch” like it is pronounced in “choo-choo” train!).  I learned about them first in a lecture by Dr. Neil Ringler when I was a young, impressionable graduate student at State University of New York in 1987.  I remember him scrawling out that strange word Hucho on the blackboard, and how  he described it as a true giant, the largest of the salmonids (the taxonomic group that reign supreme in cold water rivers and lakes in the northern hemisphere).  It definitely caught my attention and imagination at the time (since a very early age, I’ve always been drawn to fish and rivers), but any in-depth thought on this particular group of fishes, or their place in the world, lay dormant for many years. 

Fast forward to 2003, when I was hired as a new staff member at a small conservation organization called the Wild Salmon Center in Portland, Oregon. Within the first week there, I found myself at a table with Xanthippe Augerot, staring at an impressively tall stack of documents that she hoisted to the center table.  She and Guido Rahr, the president of the Wild Salmon Center, had just created a new “specialist group” for salmonids within IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) with the help of Russ Mittermeier, the President of Conservation International.  Xan and I talked about the potential role of this international group, and our conversation slowly got grounded in what was practical and doable.  During that conversation, she mentioned this species to me, Sakhalin taimen, and it struck a chord as I thought back to my early graduate school training.  During that conversation she spread out all the ingredients for a very intriguing and rewarding intellectual journey, embedded within a very important cause – protecting a giant salmonid in a far-away, exotic place.  I had spent the last 10 years working in British Columbia, North Carolina, Alaska, the Bahamas and few other places, but Asia was on a whole different level!  And while my training and background had been largely on research to improve the way we manage fisheries, the species conservation dimension of this particular problem greatly intrigued me.  My plan quickly took shape – pull together all the specialists and relevant data on the species and summarize its current status in the wild.  As part of that, lay out priority river conservation actions and get new, important research underway. 

Since then I have been growing a network of colleagues around the world that have a deep, enduring curiosity and concern about these fishes, and they all bring unique talents and perspectives to the table.  I certainly bow in regard to similar research and conservation groups working on various charismatic flora and fauna (and fungi, even!) in far flung locations on the earth, but there is something really special about these fishes, at the risk of landing on a cliché. They cut across all sorts of intriguing issues and geography, and there is more there than any one person could tackle in a few lifetimes.  For me, I’m just trying to make the best go of it, particularly challenging for a person that is not particularly outgoing by nature.  At the end of the day, I am hoping to leave some lasting legacy involving salmon and rivers.

So here I find myself in a small village in the extreme north of Japan.  The village is more like what we would call a rural county in the US.  It is very thinly populated (just over 2,000 people), and dairy farming, fishing and some logging supports a large part of the economy.   I first came here in 2006, and I have made a number of trips since then.  This year is different, though, as I start a new field project that demands a greater investment in time, coordination and communication.  The main objective of the project is pretty simple in theory (in practice, well it is a bit more complicated, as you’ll see later!): to estimate the number of endangered itou in a major tributary of the Sarufutsu River, one of the best preserved “wild salmon rivers” left in Japan.  That is not much of an exaggeration, actually, as most rivers, like many rivers around the world, have been greatly modified to “bend the will” of the river to the needs of humans.  This includes a whole host of things, including daming, dyking, water extraction, gravel mining, channel straightening, etc.  In this part of Japan, it is mostly about accommodating agricultural land, controlling erosion, and providing drinking water. 

The Sarufutsu River, however, largely escaped this fate, and today can really be described as an untamed, wild river.  This is rare, indeed, in a country as developed as Japan.  This river was named “river of the reedy plain” by the Ainu, the native people of this region.  To this day, the name is apt, given that there remains intact, natural floodplain and wetlands that provide important habitat for wildlife and serves the regional community in many ways, perhaps not always fully appreciated. This river is not only a productive salmon river, but it is just awe inspiring and beautiful.  From its mountain headwaters, if flows through valleys with what stream people call “highly sinuous channels”, where the stream bends around on itself, so in many places you can be standing between two channels just meters apart and the rivers will be flowing in opposite directions.  I am not a Buddhist, but this is one of those places I can feel enlightened!  The forests in the headwaters are diverse, with a mix of fir and broadleaf deciduous trees, with particularly striking birch tree groves and very large Mongolian oaks in the floodplain.  The understory makes these rivers appear very different from the ones I am familiar with in the U.S.  The dominant plant (and I mean dominant, it is everywhere) is sasa, a small bamboo plant.  The annual routine with this plant is to get completely flattened by snow during the winter, and then, as the snow melts away, straighten and grow to a height of about 10 feet during the summer growing season.  It is the dominant riparian vegetation (the strip of plants that line and stabilize river banks).  I think the plant is very cool, but I also consider it my nemesis, as I will need to navigate through it (many, many kilometers) as I work in the river.  Anyway, more about my travails with sasa later in this blog!

The river continues on to a broad, flat plain, with a mix of wetlands and agricultural land.  The channels are deep and the current is slow.  A large lagoon exists near the mouth.  The last 5 km of lower river has been straightened, but, all in all, the wild character of the river remains intact.   The river flows into the Sea of Okhotsk (quite possibly the most difficult pronunciation exercise ever devised by humans … don’t even try it!).  Anyway, itou spend a part of their life out in these frigid coastal waters.

So, that is itou, and the lucky ones can call the Sarufutsu River their home.