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The tale of a salmon slinger

 

NEHALEM RIVER, Ore. - My throwing arm always left something to be desired. A decent hitter, I was always a disaster on the softball field. Even when I could catch the ball, I couldn't throw it to save my life.

I didn't think about that, though, when I signed on with Oregon's Department of Fish & Wildlife for the salmon field trip.

Fish and Wildlife biologist Michele Long was heading out to place salmon carcasses in a local stream with the help of a couple of Clatskanie fishermen and a handful of teens from a local alternative high school. Although the agency started the "stream enhancement" program in 1998, local interest in throwing dead hatchery fish in rivers has grown, as more Oregonians become affected by the listing of salmon and trout as endangered species.

Starting this year, Long and her coworkers will conduct spawning surveys to see if stream enhancement is helping. Meanwhile, she says, it's one of those activities everybody wants to throw their weight behind.

"Maybe people like it for some strange reason because they can throw something in the water," she says. "It's a direct-line connection they can make. It's an immediate benefit."

On this trip, Long planned to make several stops along four miles of a tributary of northwest Oregon's Nehalem River. At each stop, the crew would be slinging salmon carcasses along the stream channel. Carcasses along the stream are something nature would've seen to, 150 years ago.

Oregon streams once hosted thousands of wild salmon that died after spawning. But with the decline of native runs of salmon and steelhead, streams no longer benefit much from decaying wild fish. And that hurts the entire food web. The carcasses provide direct and indirect food for a wide range of wildlife species. So biologists such as Long and her team of volunteers are returning that missing component to many Oregon streams, using hatchery fish.

When salmon return to the hatchery, most are ready to spawn, something staff see to manually. Fish are killed by a blow to the head, then females' bellies are slit for eggs, while males are milked for their sperm. Thousands of carcasses are then hauled from hatcheries to salmon spawning grounds, and placed to mimic the natural distribution of wild carcasses. So far this year, Long and other staffers have put nearly 40,000 pounds of fish in local rivers and streams.

The afternoon we went out, two trucks carried large blue barrels in their beds, with 430 coho between them. The coho had been dead for a month, frozen most of that time. And though the Department of Fish and Wildlife started thawing the salmon a week before at the Nehalem Hatchery, a recent cold snap meant many of the 20-pound fish were still frozen.

The good news was, they didn't smell.

The bad news was, they were frozen together.

I climbed up into one of the truckbeds and looked in a barrel. Coho are silvery bright when they come in from the ocean, but once they hit fresh water, they turn red. As they start moving upstream to their spawning beds, the color ebbs with their vitality. These decapitated fish were still a brilliant crimson.

In the spitting rain, one of the high school boys chipped away at the frozen mass of fish with a long, sharp rod. On the ground below, a girl held open a burlap sack, her eyes averted when the fish dropped in, headless. Staff cut off their heads after spawning them so that these fish won't be counted in surveys as wild salmon that made it upstream to spawn on their own.

I asked the students if they wanted to pursue fish-related careers. They both let me know, succinctly, that would be negatory.

"This is disgusting," added the girl.

My spirits were much too much for the high schoolers. So I let them commiserate amongst themselves and went over to the other truck, the one with stickers all along the back bumper, like "Fishermen feed the world."

Greg Mustola chipped away at frozen fish in one of the barrels. A salmon fisherman all his life, Mustola has worked on the salmon replacement project for three years, as part of the "Hire the Fishermen" program. Since the early 1990s, when the federal government began listing salmon as endangered species, Mustola has been hard-pressed to make a living. Helping out with this program provides him with a paycheck and the hope that by replacing fish, he's helping restore an ecosystem.

"It's a natural process that has virtually been taken away," he said. "Raccoons, hawks, eagles, crawdads, little bugs - the whole system benefits, really."

We stood deep in the Oregon woods, about 80 miles from the river's mouth, where the fish leave the ocean and start their incredible journey upstream.

"They've got a purpose when they come here," said Long, holding up a handful of fiery red coho eggs. Because they're high in energy content, juvenile fish will love any eggs left in the carcass, she explained, but those nutrients aren't just for young fish.

Studies have found a trace marine element, an isotope that scientists can track through the environment, in everything from amphibians to the roots of trees a hundred miles from the ocean, or more.

"One hundred and some-odd species rely on these fish," Long said. "It's like a net gain to the system."

We walked down to a bend in the stream, while Long explained how to place them within the flood channel.

"We can mimic where they'd naturally end up," she said. She stopped: "See here, this is a good spot."

Overhead towered Western red cedar and alder. Shallow pools and lots of downed logs also offered good habitat for fish. Long leaned over and dug into her sack of treasures. She arced one fish underhand, then another. They sank, slowly, to the bottom of the clear, shallow stream.

At first, like a good reporter, I just watched. I could see Long was privy to a level of gratification I couldn't begin to touch.

"Oh, that's a good spot," she murmured, as one splashed down just where she wanted it.

But after a few minutes, I couldn't resist. Casually, I asked if I could toss one.

She pointed to some canvas gloves, the palms coated in some impermeable green material. I slipped them on, reached into her canvas bag and pulled out a coho, surprised by its heft, and its slime. Though I had my eye on a certain pool about a dozen feet off, the fish slipped from my grasp and landed instead about three feet from me, in the stream. It left behind fish guts and blood on my gloves and my jeans. I had made the mistake of grasping it gingerly at the tail. With the next one, I spread my fingers wide and dug into its corpus, the mid-section. This one I threw overhand, not from my sissy elbow, but from my shoulder - the way you're supposed to throw.

It landed just where I wanted, between several logs, making a satisfying smack as it hit the water.

Then came the best part. Just downstream, Long had wandered away from her sack and found a primo spot for carcasses. Could I toss her one? For a few minutes, Long and I were a two-woman brigade, helping to save the salmon: I pulled from the sack, I slung, she caught, she flung.

Just maybe, I will reconsider softball as a personal pastime.

 

Karen Mockler reports for the Daily Astorian in Astoria, Oregon. She is a former HCN intern.

You can contact ...

  • Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, 4909 Third St., Tillamook OR 97141 (503/842-2741).

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Karen Mockler