Counting fish

Chico eco-company has worldwide reach

Doug Demko is founder and president of FISHBIO, which monitors fish from Butte County to the Bay Delta to Southeast Asia.

Doug Demko is founder and president of FISHBIO, which monitors fish from Butte County to the Bay Delta to Southeast Asia.

Photo By tom gascoyne

On the corner of Fourth and Wall streets in downtown Chico sits an innocuous-looking storefront housing a business that monitors fish populations, species and habitat in places ranging from Big Chico Creek to the Mekong River Basin in Southeast Asia.

Chico State grad Doug Demko created FISHBIO six years ago in the Stanislaus County town of Oakdale. He opened a Chico office about a year ago, he said, in part because it’s easier to hire and bring people to Chico than to Oakdale.

The company’s website describes FISHBIO as “a dedicated group of research scientists, engineers, and technicians that specialize in counting, tracking, and analyzing trends in fish and wildlife populations throughout the world. Our expert staff, technical capacity, and state-of-the-art equipment make us trailblazers in aquatic research.”

Demko is an engaging fellow who is not shy about sharing what he knows and what his company does.

Like so many others in this town, he came to Chico to attend college and never really left, though he spends most of his time these days on the road. “FISHBIO started six years ago, but I’ve been on the road probably 70 to 80 percent of the time,” he said during a recent interview in his office.

“A year ago we decided we should open an office in Chico. We have about 45 employees now and a big shop on a couple of acres in Oakdale that puts us right in the heart of the San Joaquin basin and near the Bay Delta.”

The company uses state-of-the art technology it manufactures in its Oakdale location to research and monitor fish populations, which are a measure of a river system’s environmental health. The company does a lot of work in the San Joaquin basin, he said, working for water companies, irrigation districts and the Army Corps of Engineers.

A fishing family that relies on the Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia for their food. The Tonlé Sap River connects the lake to the Mekong River near Phnom Penh. The lake contributes about 60 percent of the Cambodian total inland fish production.

photo courtesy of Fishbio

“We use high-technology like infrared scanners,” Demko said. “When the salmon are coming back we’ll build a fence along the river we’re studying and make them swim through an infrared scanner.”

Also used is a device called a “behavioral louver” to direct the fish into the scanner, which has a camera to photograph them as they swim past.

“We get accurate counts [of fish], get their sex, their length, their girth and tell if they are hatchery or natural fish,” he said. “Then we monitor where they spawn with GPS-driven technology. We consider the depth and velocity of the water and the size of the nests they build. Then we monitor the juveniles as they are going out.”

FISHBIO monitors survival rates, and when the fish get to the Delta they are caught and implanted with radio transmitters.

“We monitor them around the Delta,” he said. “Pumping water is obviously a big issue there, and it’s what drives a lot of fishery research these days.

“We’ve got projects on the Stanislaus, the Calaveras, the Tuolumne, the Merced and all the tributaries down there,” Demko continued. “The work we do in the North State is more research driven that monitor driven. We are actually getting involved more locally and starting a program for Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve to monitor the trout population there.”

Four years ago Demko traveled to the Mekong Basin in Southeast Asia where, he said, 60 million people rely on Mekong River fish for protein. He said dams are now being built along the Mekong and compared it to where the United States was 50 years ago, when rivers and streams were altered without thought of subsequent environmental damage.

“We went there, opened up an office and hired a local fish biologist and 18 villagers to collect data for us,” he said. “We spent a couple years looking at what species people were harvesting, what they were doing with it—eating it, trading it, selling it.”

The information was based on 3,000 household surveys that gathered fundamental research that had never been done. The effort is paying off, as the company is now working in the region for the U.S. State Department.

“Last year before Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton left office she visited the region. It was a priority toward the end of her administration to protect the people there. This is the most bio-diverse fishery in the world. There are 850-plus known species. It’s probably the most productive fishery in the world, and it’s a food source. Clinton recognized what a potential disaster it could be if the basin were developed without the appropriate planning.”