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Spokane River supports crawdads, but other species lost to pollution

Thu., July 24, 2008

Here’s how to catch a crawdad.

Lean over the water so your shadow falls across it, cutting the glare from the sun. Look for flashes of orange.

When you spot a crawdad, grasp it firmly behind the pinchers. The crawdad will brandish its claws in a show of menace, but it can’t reach back far enough to pinch you.

Joben Jones, 21, recently demonstrated this technique at People’s Park in Spokane’s Peaceful Valley neighborhood. I tried it. It works.

The flashy-looking crustaceans – more correctly known as signal crayfish – are freshwater cousins to lobsters. The fact that they’re still common in the Spokane River and other Western streams speaks to their survival skills.

Depending on the food supply, crawdads can dine as vegetarians, scavengers or cannibals. They also tolerate a certain level of pollution in the water.

As we paddled different stretches of the Spokane River over the past two weekends, I wondered about life in its waters. Although the river still supports crawdads, it has lost many of its bugs, said Chris Donley, a district fish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Stoneflies and salmon flies once swarmed so thickly along the Spokane River that Model Ts crashed into one another on bridges. Now, only a few “boilerplate” species of mayflies and caddis flies remain, Donley said.

“Our invertebrates are really telling us the quality of the habitat,” he said. “They’re the sensitive canary in the coal mine. … They’re highly sensitive to chlorines and PCBs.”

Bugs also are critical elements of a complex, aquatic food chain. And Donley doesn’t want any to disappear from the river during his watch.

“The amount of fish you can grow, the amount of osprey you can support, is all tied to levels of invertebrates,” he said.

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