Spring Chinook Salmon – 2015

One of the coolest events in nature is happening now.  The pairing up of Spring Chinook Salmon in their native habitat, preparing to spawn.  This is the end of the life cycle for them and the beginning of the life cycle for the next generation.


Admittedly, the video quality is lacking.  You’ll find much better elsewhere on the web without looking to hard. This was all I got before the battery died.

I watched this fish, presumably a female, at a very close distance, for about an hour.  So close, that I was able to see that she had an adipose fin intact.  This indicated to me that she was a wild fish, born in this very river 4 or 5 years ago. She likely hatched from this very same patch of gravel, just east of Gates, Oregon.

When I moved to a higher vantage point to watch, I could see several other fish in the vicinity. Two fish in particular seemed to be very interested in this gal and strutted up to her several times.  I assume them to be males, one nearly the same size as the female and one slightly smaller.  Neither of them liked it much when the other got close and would chase and pursue the other, then again, search out the female. At one point the chase concluded directly below my perch on the rock cliff.  One of the suitors was a wild fish, with adipose fin intact and the other a hatchery raised fish, missing the adipose fin.

Since approximately 80% of the Spring Chinook return the Willamette Sub Basin each year are hatchery raised fish, and the fact that this location is less that 2 river miles from where the hatchery raised fish are released each spring, it is not unusual to see both wild and hatchery species in the area.  As much as we’d like to believe that hatchery and wild fish don’t interbreed, the fact is, they do.  And it happens a lot!

At this point, I’m going to make a lot of assumptions.  The opinions expressed from here on are based on observation and opinion, not any sort of science.  I am not a fisheries biologist.  

Let’s take the observed “courtship” and play it out into a couple different scenarios that are likely to occur in the next couple weeks.

Scenario 1:  The wild male wins the right to pair up with the wild female by chasing off all comers – wild and hatchery alike.

This is the “glass half full”, best possible outcome we can hope for.  Two North Santiam born and raised fish carve out a section of gravel (that isn’t smothered over with lava rock-powder-icy road treatment or agro-forestry silt runoff) and spawn together.  The 2,000+/- eggs are covered up with clean gravel and begin incubation.  Sometime in the next 50-70 days, depending on water temperature, PH, etc. – the eggs will hatch, the alevin will absorb their attached egg sack and emerge as fry. (This assumes that they won’t all be hoovered up by an abundance of Large Scale Suckers or Northern Pikeminnow that are around this year due to warmer than usual water temperatures.)

They’ll spend the next year or more working their way through the gauntlet of threats – merganser ducks, kingfishers, other fish, furry critters and the likes- to find themselves in the “less than pristine” waters of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers.  Next up are flocks of hungry Caspian Terns and Cormorants near the salty sea.  Those that make it to the ocean will find a “blob” of warmer than usual water and El Nino conditions that historically are not kind to salmon species.  This is all in addition to the normal list of predators.

In a few years a signal will turn those remaining fish around.  They’ll head for their “home” river to find a mate, hook-up, and die.  Under the best of possible outcomes, those that return from the original 2,000 hatch will number around 20 or so adult fish. The other 99% will have met their demise somewhere along the way.  Predation, disease, toxins, commercial fishing fleets, gill nets and sport harvest will have accounted for the other 1,980 or so fish.  But those 20 fish represent the best of the best!  They had the genes that gave them the wherewithal to hatch, become parr, smolt and evolve to adults – while surviving all of the threats – to make it home more or less in one piece.

Scenario 2:  The hatchery raised male wins the right to pair up with the wild female by chasing off all comers – wild and hatchery alike.

This is the “glass half empty” outcome.  The two fish will spawn together and create the same number of eggs (+/-2,000) that will hatch and follow the same path as scenario #1.  However, with one parent fully hatchery raised, some of the DNA is missing.  Dad didn’t incubate and hatch in the wild.  He was born in a “climate controlled” hatchery and had food pellets rain from the sky on a regular basis for the first year or so of his life.  He developed very few hunting skills.  He also lacked the “run for cover” skills, since merganser ducks, kingfishers and the like are not allowed on hatchery premises.  He did learn those things rather abruptly once he entered the real world.  And since he was fed regularly and didn’t have to hunt, he had a size advantage over his wild cousins and was able to muscle his way into the best hiding spots.

This isn’t the end of the world.  Dad obviously wasn’t a complete idiot. He used his size to an advantage early on, and learned quickly enough to overcome the same gauntlet of threats the wild fish faced.  But all the same, some skills were lost, the chain is broken and a few links are missing for the generations that follow.  Ethical sport anglers may catch a few of the decedents a few years from now, see the intact adipose fin, and release those fish to continue their journey. The species, perfect or not, will have a chance to continue on.

Scenario 3:  The hatchery raised male and/or wild male wins the right to pair up with the wild female by chasing off all comers – wild and hatchery alike.  Even with adipose fin(s) present, neither parent may be truly “wild”.

This is the “drink what’s in the glass and go fishing” outcome.  There is a really good chance that even if one (or both) parents have adipose fins, that they could be the 1st to sport it in their bloodline. One, or both, of either of their parent’s could have been a hatchery raised fish! Neither of the fish could be packing all of the genes passed down for thousands of years that make up a North Santiam Spring Chinook Salmon.  As with scenario 2, they survive to the end of their life-cycle and will be parents the next generation.

In all cases, the adults will expire once the process is complete.  Their bodies will decompose and feed the entire area surrounding the river with nutrients.  Smaller fish, insects, birds and animals will feed on their carcasses.  Trees and streamside vegetation will benefit from the nutrients provided. Neither the plants or the animals will care if adipose fins are present or not. The proteins, fat, nitrogen and phosphorus levels are the same regardless.

To ensure that what’s left of the bloodline of the ancient North Santiam River Spring Chinook continues, an immediate halt to hatchery planting must occur.  With every fall spawning season that goes by, more and more interbreeding happens.  The gene pool gets more shallow every time.  But shutting down hatcheries is probably not going to happen in my lifetime.  A big chunk of the 2,000 original eggs that survive the freshwater and grow to adults are caught by commercial fishing fleets here in the Pacific Northwest.  They make up a huge portion of the economy.  They are a resource that many communities and tribes depend on.  You don’t just turn that off.

Those of us living inland and witness the beginning and end of the life-cycle, get a sporting chance at the left-overs and the lucky few that come home.  We’re allowed to bonk a couple fish on the head and take them home to our table (if they happen to be missing the adipose fin). We enjoy it. But for that opportunity, we pay a hefty percentage of the cost of raising those hatchery fish.  We may not like the cost and feel cheated by the numbers we see, but we don’t want it to end either.

Humans have three basic needs, right?  Food, Clothing and Shelter.  To meet those basic needs (and profit from them) we consume a vast amount of natural resources.  We log, farm, ranch, dam, mine, pump, harvest, process, dump, package and transport those resources around the globe.  All of those things impact salmon in one way or another.  And the issues are all intertwined.  Dams were built to provide power for industry and irrigation for agriculture. Forests were cleared to provide building materials.  Hatcheries were built to supplement declining fish runs because of lack of habitat – either blocked by dams or destroyed by logging/farming/mining, so that commercial fisheries still have fish to harvest.  It’s a multi-headed monster and it can’t be fixed by lopping off one of the heads.  It’s like the analogy about eating an elephant.  You can do it one bite at a time, but not in one sitting.  The same is true regarding Salmon.  We have to take small bites, make tweaks here and there. Find some balanced approaches and make compromises in meeting basic human needs.

In the mean time, wild fish advocates such as myself will release adipose wearing fish when caught and do whatever is within our power to protect them and their environment so that our decedents have an opportunity angle for the species and/or to witness their awesome dance at the end of their life-cycle!  Regardless of the number of fins those fish had, it’s still a great sight to see and I feel fortunate to live so close to were it’s happening.  I hope it continues.


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