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As Oregon’s wild salmon continue to stage in our estuaries and tidewater reaches, anglers, while taking advantage of such great fishing conditions, anxiously await the first significant rain event to send this year’s saltwater nutrient base into the upper reaches of our watersheds. It’s a transfer of energy that is critical to sustainable returns of future generations of this coastal iconic species.

York's springer

York Johnson with a hatchery Tillamook Spring Chinook (May 2015)

Most folks now understand the value of rotting salmon flesh in the wild, after these adults have deposited their fertilized eggs in the gravel. Decomposing flesh is consumed by macro-invertebrates and juvenile fish themselves, significantly contributing to their freshwater success, prior to migration to the ocean in future months. And not only do aquatic species benefit from this nutrient source but a wide array of wildlife species is also reliant on salmon as a Keystone species.

If we ever do get that rain so desperately needed here in Oregon, and most of the Pacific Northwest for that matter, it’s a pretty unique experience to walk a small tributary system to witness the act of spawning, here at your feet, from a species that just traveled 1,500 miles to return to its natal stream. For me, that watershed moment took place on a small tributary of the Nehalem system called Fish Hawk Creek. It just so happens that a) the year I was conducting spawning ground surveys for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife was one of the smallest returns of wild coho on record for north coast basins and b) Fish hawk Creek was behind Fish Hawk Lake, which was created by Fish Hawk Dam. So, these fish not only bucked the odds of poor ocean conditions and pre-smolt summer mortalities but bypassed a dam, both downstream and upstream, to get back to this particular spawning bed.

I was approaching a 90 degree bend in the creek, again, not expecting to see adults as has been the case for much of the season. When I saw some subtle movements in the slightly stained waters, I came to an abrupt halt. I knew right then I was witnessing something very unique. What was odd was that this wild coho was not digging a redd (salmon nest), it was as still as I’ve ever seen a salmon. This is the act of spawning most wildlife watchers witness, the physical act of digging their nests. Well, this coho, which I determined at this point, was a female and with mouth agape, was actually in the process of laying its eggs in the gravel. I then looked about 15 feet downstream to see three males, two large males and one jack coho. Soon after spotting them, I saw the jack scurry right up to the backside of the female and deposit his milt to fertilize the eggs. In all my years of watching spawning salmon, I had never seen this before. I was adamant about staying hidden but needing to see how this story ended. Shortly after this exercise, all the salmon went back to socializing together and I took off to finish up my stream survey. It was a game-changing moment for me, I knew I would be dedicating a significant part of my adult life to protecting this species.

What most people don’t quite understand is the contribution of our remaining intact, functioning forest lands to the success of our salmon. Just as salmon bring back nutrients to the uplands, trees, leafy debris and even pine needles are thrust westward, well into the offshore environment and even off the Continental Shelf which ranges from 89 to 40 miles off our coastline. As this organic debris decomposes due to “scrapers” and “grazers”, these macro-invertebrates provide a valuable food source for important saltwater species as well. In conjunction, when the spring westerly Trade Winds blow, sending volumes of water against the Pacific Coast, then pushing south, that water has to be replaced from some source. This source is cold, nutrient-rich waters off of the Continental Shelf which well up the Continental Slope, bringing those macro-organisms up into the water column where our juvenile salmon feed on them once they enter the ocean in the middle of spring. There is a cache of organic matter off of the shelf but like all of our natural resources, it’s not limitless. If we don’t have the spring westerly’s and we don’t have the organic matter that fuels this upwelling effect, our salmon stocks suffer greatly, and we’ve certainly had many of those years and many more to come.

Our managers and policy-makers need to move beyond reactive management and they even have to go further than pro-active management. We need to start incorporating ecosystem-based management language into our discussions, not only talking about how to manage our ocean resources through regulation such as the Magnuson-Stevens Act, but also across our land base, recognizing the value our terrestrial ecosystems have on our aquatic ecosystems as well. In the next 10 years, we’ll see how the future of our fisheries will be shaped for the next 50, does anyone really think we’ll be prepared to deal with the consequences that are on the table?

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