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A Time of Thanks

I know it’s a bit cliché, actually, it’s really cliché but of course that’s what we’re supposed to write about when our newsletter comes out on Thursdays. Especially Thanksgiving Thursdays!

It can’t all be all bad news all the time, right? Only after reading about the decay of pteropods in the Pacific and the mass strandings of whales off of Patagonia do we get an idea that we may have just seen the best the Pacific can offer off the coast of Oregon. Sometimes, it can be hard to focus on the good, especially with news media largely only reporting the bad.

But we can look at what happened here in the Pacific Northwest this fall, with record runs of Chinook to the Columbia River and the continued excellent catches of Chinook in our coastal streams. It has clearly been the year of the king, as in salmon.

But let’s take a deeper look into why (speculative or not on my part) we may have good Chinook returns and maybe not so good coho and steelhead returns. After all, December is a big month for us; the 2016 spring chinook prediction is due out at mid-month. These spring Chinook drive people insane. We’ll even start to see boats in pursuit of the season’s first spring chinook as early as January, 4 full months away from peak season! Call us fanatic, I know.

JR Wilson upright

Conservation hero John Robinson with a Wilson River Chinook from 11-23-15

Chinook are known northward migrants. Smolting Chinook, yet to over-summer in the watershed, migrate out into the ocean after a summer of foraging in the estuaries of the Oregon Coast. It’s one thing that they escape the lethal summer water temperatures that we witnessed this year in most of the lower Pacific states but to enter the ocean with little other competition, during the fall months when not nearly as many predators are in the nearshore, can be nothing short of advantageous.

With the bulk of the forage species headed for deeper water and the inconsistency of available forage for avian predators (birds), they’ve now migrated south in hopes of more favorable foraging options, juvenile Chinook salmon have much to be thankful for. The final ecosystem advantage; the systemic human-caused elimination of their competition; the Chinook life-history lends itself to success while wild coho, steelhead, cutthroat trout and adult spring Chinook must over summer in the watersheds to meet their biological niche. That scheme didn’t work so well for those species this year.

It’s also clear with the sea-lion pup abandonment last winter, the lack of sport and commercial fishing success of the southern Oregon Coast and the gross over-prediction of coho this year that forage off of northern California and Southern Oregon, was pretty grim. Did I mention the collapse of the sardine population and dramatic downturn of the central subpopulation of northern anchovies? Let’s not forget about the massive shellfish closure for clams and crabs along the Oregon Coast just recently. Yeah, maybe it’s time to pay attention.

But this is Thanksgiving, right? It’s not all that much fun to write about the deep concerns those that pay attention to ecosystem function have in this day and age. After all, aren’t we just coming off a record return of Chinook salmon to the Columbia River? We do have much to be thankful for. Just for fun, let’s go over a few of the good points going in within our community:

  • There was a record return of Chinook salmon to the Columbia River Basin this fall; at least a record since the dams were put in,
  • We’ve recorded early snow in the Cascades! Maybe we won’t have another year of drought conditions that claimed so many of our fish this spring and summer,
  • There’s been a great chum return to the few remaining strongholds on the north Oregon coast; these fish also happen to spend very little time in fresh water
  • Sensitive species such as coho salmon have survived some of the toughest El Nino conditions in the late 80’s and early 90’s and have bounced back before, let’s hope for a repeat in resiliency and continue to fix our freshwater ecosystems while we still have the chance! Did you know that for every acre of restored wetlands, an average of 11 – 15 spawning adults return to the restored basin?
  • Finally, scientists and conservation groups are working diligently on the recovery of these sensitive species. With their dedication and our support and the aid of our state and country’s policy-makers, maybe, just maybe we can turn the bad years into better years. Through our education and outreach, adults and children alike, know more about salmon and how to protect them, than any generation in history. Yes, we do have much to be thankful for!

Enjoy your terrestrial species this Thanksgiving and let’s get back to work after our tryptophan fix on Thursday. Thank YOU for reading this blog and contributing to the conversation. Thank YOU for being a part of the solution, instead of the problem. Have a great Thanksgiving!