Inventing a better mousetrap: Innovative employees create custom salmon monitoring vessel

Finding new and better ways to recover threatened salmon species in King County is a top priority of the Water and Land Resources Division of the Department of Natural Resources and Parks.

Chris Gregersen, an Environmental Scientist who works to monitor projects designed to improve fish habitat, has recently done just that while saving the county about $45,000.

The Watershed and Ecological Assessment Team use an in-water, fish sampling technique called electrofishing. It’s a process that temporarily stuns fish allowing them to be gathered and evaluated – without being harmed – and then returned to the water.

Traditionally boats used to do this are often too big, difficult to maneuver, expensive or dangerous for the environment the team works in. They needed something lighter and agile, and began considering building a custom cataraft specifically for King County waterways.

A cataraft is a simple pontoon boat, with basic seating for just a few people and storage for items. An electrofishing cataraft adds two large electrode anodes to the front for electrofishing.

After discovering the $60,000 starting price, Chris and the team got the green light to build their own cataraft in-house. They worked with staff from Human Resources; Safety and Claims; Employee Ethics Program; and Procurement to draft a proposal to build the cataraft.

They collaborated internally with colleagues throughout their division to gather input. Once the legal planning, safety requirements and budgets were confirmed, Chris began working on the cataraft, completing it in just seven days with a total budget of $15,000.

A Washington native, Chris began with DNRP as an intern in 2008, and came on board full time in 2012 as an environmental scientist. He has always been passionate about fish, biology and habitat monitoring, and was excited to use his welding skills to make the cataraft project a reality.

“I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to put my skills to work and help bring this idea to life,” Chris said. “I have been rowing catarafts for close to 10 years, and fabricating them for six, so the idea of building an electrofishing cataraft in-house made sense.”

While still relatively new, the cataraft is already making waves. Chris and his colleague Dan Lantz recently presented their innovation at the Northwest Environmental Training Center in California. With attendees from all over the West Coast, King County was the only organization with an electrofishing cataraft.

“People were super interested in our setup and how we built it,” Chris said. “We said we needed something nimble and versatile for river restoration projects that could help us study complex salmon habitats.”

The new cataraft is perfectly customized for surveying salmon habitat in the rivers of King County. To the team, the success of the project is due to the way in which employees worked together to develop it.

“King County brings together a huge variety of policymakers, engineers, scientists and experts, and that makes for a really diverse and knowledge-rich working environment that allows us to be on the cutting edge,” Chris said.

“This latest tool allows us to help plan for future projects and provide better habitat for salmon, trout and other fish to thrive.”