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Salmon Habitat Restoration

May 7, 2011 Tags: , , Blog No comments

It’s pretty obvious that salmon are a ‘kind of a big deal’ around here in Washington.  Anyone who lives here could either tell you when the opening seasons for the different species are, or they can tell you where their favorite fishing spot is, whether it is out in the bay or up a local stream.

I call myself a fisherman and that I like to fish… However, I have learned that my younger brother, Gideon can easily school me and blow me out of the water when it comes to fishing skills and knowledge! He is obsessed with fishing!  Regardless, wild animals and aquatic life have always been an interest and passion to me since I was younger.  I grew up on a 16 acre property that consisted of various habitats including mostly woods, a few acres of field and meadow space, a natural spring and stream that flowed through our wooded ravine, and of course our domesticated barnyard full of chickens, goats, rabbits, you name it!  Having such diversity in my own backyard allowed me to explore these areas frequently throughout my childhood and learn from nature in its different seasons.

I grew up fishing for panfish and bass species in my Aunt Gail’s pond which was only a few miles from our house.  One of my favorite memories was to visit the three family apalousa horses and feed them carrots and apples before we went fishing.  As I got into my teenage years, I began fishing for trout with my buddy from high school.  As much as I like fishing, I didn’t seem to get hooked enough to keep going out consistently.  Only a few times each season.

As soon as I knew I was coming out to Washington, I was excited to get to try salmon fishing for the first time!  I started learning more about the salmon in this area by volunteering for the North Olympic Salmon Coalition (NOSC).  Their primary goal is to restore declining salmon populations to greater levels as they were in the past and keep them from going extinct!  The main ways they can do this is; to have trained employees to collect and record data on current species and populations and most importantly, improve, maintain and restore the salmon stream habitat in the area.  I decided that since I am very interested in salmon and I am aware of the importance of healthy stream and riparian habitat, that it would be good for me to become more involved with the NOSC.  There are certainly plenty of opportunities to volunteer!  Some ways I have volunteered so far include; planning and installing a nursery holding area for native tree seedlings to be stored for future habitat restoration projects, planting tree and shrubs seedlings along some local streams, fyke netting and monitoring, and volunteering at a fishing expo where NOSC had an information stand to educate visitors about the organization and the importance of the cause.

A brief overview of the life of a salmon:

Both salmon and trout are members of the Salmonidae family.  The latin name for Pacific salmon is Oncorhynchus, which means ‘hook-nosed’ in reference to the male upper jaw that changes form during the spawning season.  The main species of salmon in this area are steelhead, coho, chinook, sockeye, chum and pink salmon.  All salmon are anadromous, which means that they spend a part of their lives in salt water and return to fresh water to spawn.  The word anadromous is derived from the Green ana, meaning ‘up’, and dromein, meaning ‘to run’.  So, the fish run up the streams in order to get back to their spawning point.  As you may already know, when salmon spawn and travel upstream to deposit their eggs, they return to the exact stream which they were hatched from!  The salmon will spawn and lay their eggs in the streams and then travel as far up the stream as they can, where they die.  When the salmon eggs hatch, the baby salmon, called fry, spend the first part of their life in the fresh water, until they are ready to venture out into the ocean.  When they do enter the ocean, each species will spend different lengths of time out in the ocean, maturing until they are ready to reproduce and return back to where they were born.  Also, each salmon species tends to prefer a particular habitat and lives in a more or less defined range when living out in the ocean.  Salmon will begin to spawn and can travel from 60 miles in 21 days, up to 315 miles in eighteen days (depending on species).  Upon reaching fresh water, most spawners stop eating and must live on the stored nutrients in their bodies.  Oxygen is most important, whereas cold water holds more oxygen than warm water.  Salmon are cold-blooded and prefer cooler water temperature, from 53 to 57 degrees Fahrenheit.  If water temperature raises too high, the salmon’s oxygen demand becomes increases as well as their metabolism.  Since they do not eat when they are spawning, they deteriorate and die much faster.  During the spawning phase the bodies of the salmon change, including areas around their mouth, backs, width of the fish and their color.  Salmon will lay from 500 to 40,000 eggs!  For every 4,000 eggs, it is said that only two will survive all the rigors of life to reach adulthood, return and spawn.  Very soon after laying the eggs, the salmon will die from exhaustion and float back downstream.  The dead carcasses are used as a food source for predators and scavengers, as well as other juvenile salmon.

Salmon Habitat

Some events in the past which has contributed to the destruction and decrease in quality salmon stream habitat include; logging, dam construction, agriculture, pollution and commercial over-fishing.  Some ways salmon habitat are improved include fish hatcheries, man-made spawning channels, fish ladders, restocking and fish farms.  Much of the natural stream habitat was changed or destroyed by some of the various reasons mentioned above.  A few of the biggest concerns for salmon habitat seems to be preserving the native vegetation along the stream banks, maintaining the natural shape and streambeds of the streams, and managing what is being put into the streams intentionally or unintentionally.  These pollutants being put into the streams include; excessive nutrients from farmland and home lawns and gardens, and other debris like wood chips and excessive organic matter from erosion.

Many of the streams in this area were re-constructed and straightened in order to allow for more usable farm space.  This does not create a good habitat for the salmon.  The natural meandering stream layout allows salmon to swim upstream more easily, as well as create pools and silty spawning areas for the salmon to lay their eggs.  The NOSC has been applying for grants to restore areas such as these to provide the declining salmon species with more suitable habitat so the population can be increased.  Another way they have been increasing quality habitat is by creating man-made estuaries for the salmon to lay their eggs within the channels.  On a small scale, maintaining native plant vegetation and ground covers along streamsides is a very effective way to improve the habitat.  As mentioned before, salmon prefer cool water with high oxygen levels.  When vegetation is allowed to grow on the sides of the streams, it shades the waters as well as reduces erosion and unwanted excessive sediments from polluting the habitat.

As mentioned before, I have been volunteering for the NOSC with various projects.  As you are now aware of the importance of streamside habitat, you will know why we were planting hundreds of native trees and shrubs along the stream!  Tree and shrubs that we planted include: Picea sitchensis, sitka spruce, Tsuga heterophylla, Western hemlock, Salix sp., willows (we actually simply struck the 4’ stems into the saturated soil, because willows are known for having high auxin levels in them which aid in rapid root formation and growth), Alnus rubra, red alder, Betula papyrifera, paper birch, Pyrus fusca, Pacific/Oregon crab apple, Cornus nutallii, Pacific dogwood, Cornus sericea, red-osier dogwood and Physocarpus capitatus, Pacific ninebark.

A view of a different site where small trees were planted in an area along a stream, to enhance the habitat.  The tubing is used to protect the small trees from becoming damaged or destroyed by humans or animals, mostly.

Fyke netting- a method used to capture hatched salmon fry (babies) when they depart from the hatching site, out into larger stream areas and eventually into the ocean when they are more mature.  This method of netting is used to monitor and record data to analyze salmon species populations starting with the young.  This area was South-East of Sequim (see map above) and was near Salmon Creek.  The net was actually set up at the opening channel that lead out into the main stream from a man-made estuary constructed by the NOSC.  The site was previously a natural salmon estuary where salmon would lay their eggs and was eventually turned into a dumping ground for wood chips and other organic materials, destroying the habitat.  Later, NOSC came in to restore the habitat and reconstruct new channels which are once again being used by the salmon.

I snapped a few pictures of the netting area as the tide was getting lower.  As the tide lowered, the salmon fry were forced to swim out of the channels and into our netting system.  We also used smaller hand nets to catch the little suckers as they swam around the net!

A Sculpin!  A small bottom-feeding fish that we caught a lot of!

A chum salmon fry!  Most of them ranged from 30-40mm long.  It was hard to focus because some fish weren’t very hardy and could not be out of the water for very long.

We saw a river otter poking its head out of the water, watching us!  We also found some of his tracks in the mud nearby our nets.

A view of the back of the estuary where some of the natural vegetation is beginning to return after construction, which is good!

Volunteering at the NOSC information booth at a fly fishing expo in Sequim, WA!

I have not been out Salmon fishing, yet.  But, I have managed to go fresh water fishing for trout with my buddy, Joe!  Over a week ago, we went fishing for cutthroat trout species at Devil’s Lake, Olympic National Forest area.  We caught about five keepers and dozens of smaller cutthroat trout that we put back!  It was such a beautiful area.  We were able to drive up the mountain along a powerline and then hike in a mile or more into the lake.  We are planning to return there in a few weeks to cut some more fishing spots along the shore.  Yeah, I snagged my hook into the trees about six times, ha!  We had to cross a log to get over a ravine and a small stream.  Actually, Joe went around… Sorry, Joe. J  We found a Trillium ovatum, the native trillium on our hike in!  Joe also wrote his name on a mushroom…

Trillium ovatum

Our first catches!  We caught some larger ones later, but we didn’t get good pictures of them!  Well, Joe caught some larger ones.  I’m getting better!  We got some good meat from them to add to Joe’s family freezer.  Pretty soon we will have a fish cookout!

After we filleted the fish, we decided to get Joe’s garden goin’ for the year!  We dug out a few pathways and raised the growing beds which I find aids in healthy root growth and water drainage, as well as ease of weeding and harvesting when the time comes.

This past weekend, we went trout fishing again!  This time our friends Ray and Chris came along.  We all drove up to Jefferson Lake, but hit a road block!  We were so high up that the snow was still two feet deep on the road!  It would have been several hours of hiking up to the lake, which we were not prepared for.  Yeah, I know… So, we decided to go to another lake which was nearby called Lena Lake.  It was a three mile hike up to the lake, but the trail had a lot of switchbacks which made it a fairly easy hike!  The lower Lena Lake which we went to was at about 1,800 feet in elevation and the lake surface was about 55 acres large.  The upper Lena Lake was another four miles hiking and was at about 4,500 feet.  We just went to the lower one.

Joe and Chris decided to have a snowball fight when we first were stopped by the snow heading up the mountain to Jefferson Lake.

Erythronium oregonum, White Fawn Lily

We made it up after about an hour and a half of hiking.  Chris is seven years old and wanted to stop a lot! J  The lake was very beautiful!  We were fishing for the native brook trout, but we didn’t get any fish, or bites.  Just being up there enjoying God’s creation was awesome!

Where’s Joe? Can you see him?… ha ha.  It was fun climbing across those fallen cedar logs to get to some fishing spots that seemed pretty good, but it was definitely a challenge because most of them were awkward to walk across and very slippy!

So, it seems that fishing is taking up a good chunk of my time… Well, it is on the weekends, but I love it!  Sometime soon, Joe, his kids and I may go back to Devil’s Lake and see if we can cut a few new trails and get to some good spots!  We may even bring a boat this time so we can fish from out in the center of the lake, also.  I’m not sure when I will get to fish for salmon, if I do.  If I do, I will definitely be posting on here about my experience, with plenty of pictures!

I hope this post was enjoyable for you to read!  I understand that the information on the salmon was very brief, but there is a lot to learn about them!  Please subscribe if you would like to be informed when I post another blog in the near future!  Thanks!

A flash from the past, when I was probably fifteen years young!

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