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Historic Native American Food Source May See Improvement

A Montana State University graduate student has won a $94,000 fellowship for research that may improve fishways, or fish ladders, that help fish such as salmon and shad navigate dams and other obstacles to reach their spawning grounds.

Katey Plymesser, a doctoral candidate in civil engineering, was one of only 14 students nationally chosen as a Hydro Research Foundation fellow. The foundation's $94,000 award will fund two years of research for Plymesser.

"It's a pretty impressive thing to get one of these," said Joel Cahoon, professor of civil engineering and Plymesser's adviser. "The monetary award is greater than a lot of the well-known scholarships and there are fewer of them given out."

Plymesser's approach to studying Steeppass fishways, a type of fishway designed for use in smaller streams and remote locations, is unique in that she is taking a more detailed look at the hydraulics than studies have in the past. According to Plymesser, many of the previous studies on these fishways only analyzed the velocities in the downstream direction, or the direction of water flow. In reality, there are swirls and eddies in these fishways that result in water moving in many directions. Plymesser will characterize the velocities in three dimensions rather than just one.

Plymesser's work focuses on American shad, a species of herring native to the Atlantic Ocean that spawns in freshwater rivers. They usually grow to about 20 inches, but can be up to 30 inches and weigh up to 12 pounds.

It is easier to collect meaningful data on one species than on several, said Plymesser, so she is focusing on shad. However, she hopes the techniques she uses for analysis will be applicable to the design of fishways for other species.

"We know that American shad are not swimming through existing Steeppass fishways well, but we don't know why," Plymesser said. "The Steeppass fishways were originally designed for salmon, who are stronger swimmers, but shad and other species also need to be able to get up the rivers to spawn."

Shad has been an important food source for a long time. Native Americans harvested shad during the annual spring spawning runs and taught colonists how to catch shad in order to feed their families. Dried shad has been credited with saving George Washington's troops from starvation as they camped at Valley Forge. By the 1800s fishermen caught shad by the ton. People prized shad for their succulent meat and tasty roe, or eggs.

As human population increased so did the demand for shad. The Chesapeake Bay shad fishery was an important seasonal industry by the 1800s. Shad became one of the most commercially valuable fish in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

By the late 1800s, excessive harvesting took its toll on shad. This exploitation coupled with pollution and loss of spawning grounds began a downward spiral of shad populations. From an annual harvest of 17.5 million pounds at the turn of the century, Chesapeake shad harvests dwindled to less than 2 million pounds by the 1970s.

The fish are still caught commercially and recreationally, although their numbers have declined dramatically.

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Currently, the Connecticut River's American shad population, which Plymesser will be working with, is estimated at 1-2 million returning adults each year.

Shad use manmade fishways, to get over or around artificial barriers, such as dams and locks, during their natural migration.

Plymesser will be using a fishway model at the S.O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Center at Turners Falls, Mass., to calibrate a computer model characterizing fishways in the Connecticut River.

The data she gathers can be used to design or retrofit Steeppass fishways to better facilitate shad movement upriver.

Plymesser didn't start her engineering career studying fish passage. She moved to Bozeman 10 years ago after graduating from Case Western Reserve University in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. She came to take advantage of Bozeman's recreational opportunities and worked as a civil engineer designing subdivisions.

"I didn't love doing that," Plymesser said.

When her job was cut to half time due to the recession, she decided to take advantage of her new-found free time and return to school.

"She has some practical background and outlooks that she brings to the program," Cahoon said. "And she's a great student both in and out of engineering; I like to tease her that she always wrecks the grade curve because of her high scores."

Plymesser feels that being in a small program has been beneficial to her. Since she is Cahoon's only advisee, she gets to work one-on-one with him. And, she found unique funding options such as the Hydro Research Foundation fellowship and as a Student Career Experience Program intern with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, Mass.

"I have made a lot of contacts that will continue to benefit me," Plymesser said. "That wouldn't happen if I walked into a fully funded program."

The Hydro Research Foundation fellowships are made possible by a $3 million, four-year grant from the Wind and Waterpower Technologies Program of U.S. Department of Energy. The 2011 class represent eleven universities from ten states.