Why did the salmon cross the road: The real story

  Dear HCN,

I happen to work in the watershed where the salmon picture was taken for Heard around the West (HCN, 4/29/02: Heard around the West). As a matter of clarification, the "car-dodging salmon" are not a "spring phenomenon" and they were not trying to "get back to the river." This is a picture of a hatchery chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) lost in the disturbed, dysfunctional, and developed floodplain of the Skokomish River. It actually was homing back to the hatchery where it is treated like a commodity. Instead, during fall high flow events, many of the local creeks and ditches flood, allowing the fish access to agricultural fields and road crossings. Chum salmon are fall spawners and are not present in the river as adults in the spring. The only adult salmonids in the river in the spring are resident bull char or anadromous steelhead. These "lost" chum actually spawn in the agriculture fields near the road, as their spawn timing instinct tells them and their acceptance of fine substrate allows them.

All of these fish actually die on the floodplain (disturbed cow pasture) after successfully or unsuccessfully depositing their eggs in the field. All of these redds (egg nests) are unsuccessful, as these fields dry up once the flood recedes. Basically, these lost fish and their eggs end up fertilizing the agricultural field with their nutrients and provide a feast for gulls and bald eagles. This valley has become an ironic tale of the plight of salmon, as native-wild chum salmon once provided these same ecosystem services. Unfortu-nately, these fish are now close to gone in this valley. Maybe the river is just trying to recover its fish and its soul?

Jeff Shellberg
Shelton, Washington