Marine life

Pacific Salmon

Story and Photos by Joanne Huemoeller

Legend has it that deep in the Olympic Mountains of Washington, king salmon of unimaginable proportion once swam up the waters of the Elwha River and used its cool riffles to spawn more of their kind. These same salmon once wandered up and down the Pacific Coast, remaining at sea for up to 12 years, an unusually long time. While at sea, they grew to
an average size of 100 pounds and developed the physical attributes they would need to climb a series of extraordinary rapids, rapids smaller fish would never be able to breach. These fish were Tyee, the Native American word for large fish.

The gravel nursery

But the story begins long before any salmon embarks on that journey upstream. Life for a young salmon starts when an egg is fertilized and buried with hundreds or thousands of others of its kind in a freshwater gravel depression called a redd. Water temperature and clarity are critical to the egg's successful hatching. Alevins, tiny fish with their yolk sac still attached, hatch out of the eggs and remain protected in the gravel while they grow and develop into fry.

Pacific Salmon

Fry migration

As fry, they begin their downstream migration, some tail first. Along the way, the yolk sac now gone, their predatory instincts engage, and insects and other small creatures keep their stomachs full. Riparian (streamside) trees and plants provide prime habitat for all those necessary insects and shade, which keeps the water cool. Downed trees, roots, rocks, and boulders provide ideal places for fry to hide from their own predators, to rest and to keep from being washed downstream in flood conditions. Life is good for these young fry, until they come to their first dam, their first area of riparian disturbance, or their first encounter with pollution. These factors and others dramatically reduce the odds of their survival.

Smolt Transformation

For those that do survive the journey downriver, the next stop is an estuary or wide river mouth where salt and fresh water mix. Here, they begin smoltification, the physical transformation that allows them to move out
into saltwater.

Adults at sea

Once at sea, salmon travel far and wide: Coho swim a good thousand miles from their birth river, and Chinook more than double that. This brings us back to the Elwha River salmon and why I opened this article with a story about a Washington salmon run. Just because an alevin hatches in a Washington river, does not mean that it will forever be a Washington fish. In fact, it will spend most of its adult life traveling up and down the Pacific Coast visiting Oregon, Washington, California, and/or British Columbia waters. It is because Pacific salmon are so widely traveled, that the issues facing these fish, whether a dam in Washington, streamside vegetation removal in Oregon, or water diversion in California, should be of concern to us all.

Salmon runs in trouble

Salmon HeadToday the Elwha Tyee are almost extinct. The immediate cause of their near demise was the building of a dam. They could fight their way up grueling rapids but a dam with no fish ladder was an obstacle even they could not surmount. (A few are being kept alive at the Elwha River Fish Hatchery and when the two dams are removed, they will be returned to the river).

Today many other salmon runs up and down our coastline are also either already gone or in trouble. The reasons are complex and include but are not limited to natural phenomena like draughts, flooding, El Ninos, ocean current variations, climate change, and predators, such as the tenacious sea lion. And human factors like logging, dams, construction, fishing, mining, water diversion, and habitat destruction, as well as agricultural, industrial, and urban pollution.

How we can help

We can hope for the best. But we can also do our part. Start by knowing where the salmon you buy comes from so you can verify that it is responsibly caught. Become familiar with all the issues facing salmon up and down our collective coastline and all our collective rivers. Then, voice your concerns.

It is almost too late for the Tyee of the Elwha but, hopefully, not for those that have survived in spite of all the obstacles. Maybe we all can give them a little help along the way. Nature has a wonderful ability to rebound if we act in time.

Oregon Coast September/October 2007

Writer–photographer Joanne Huemoeller specializes in marine life subjects of the Pacific Northwest. Her education and marine science background led to the publication of her work in books, magazines, and calendars.

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