Salmon Watchers Toast Big YearJanuary 29, 2013 0 Comments
Written by: Kathryn True
The 2012 Salmon Watchers gathered for soup and stories last weekend to celebrate the best salmon return since 2003. A grand total of 202 live and dead fish were recorded by 23 enthusiastic volunteers of all ages—from 4 to over 65. The fish were mainly coho (152 live and 11 dead), though chum (11 live and 10 dead) and sea-run cutthroat trout (4 live), were also seen spawning in island streams.
Watch the video below for a visual summary of this year's effort. Photo and video clip credits: Kelly Keenan, Mabel Moses, Karen Olsen, and Bianca Perla:
“We had a great salmon watching season this year,” says Vashon Nature Center Director Bianca Perla. “I always love the feeling of getting to experience our creeks so closely during this time, whether I see fish or not. But this year was amazing, particularly for coho. Volunteers had some great adventures out there and they contributed to an important on-going data set that helps us track how salmon are faring in our creeks over time. I really appreciate all of their excitement and effort.”
The Land Trust’s Abel Eckhardt was first to see both chum and coho this year. The island coho season started at the usual time (Oct. 15) and lasted through mid-December, though it may have continued through the end of the year when Salmon Watchers were on holiday. Bianca hypothesized about why there were so many coho and so few chum:
“The chum run was better than last year, but light compared to the early 2000s. They also seemed to arrive around two weeks later than usual with the exception of two early spawners. It is hard to know why chum runs were not as strong as the coho runs. Likely it is a combination of effects. Chum could be responding to differences in ocean temperatures and currents caused by the recent flip in the PDO (Pacific Decadal Oscillation). However, many creeks on the Kitsap Peninsula had stronger than expected chum runs this year so it is hard to know what contributed to our low chum numbers. Stream habitat could be a factor. For all our salmon it will be interesting to see the influence of Land Trust and private land owner restoration efforts along Judd Creek in the long run. Many of the redds we found were on restored sections of Judd Creek suggesting the salmon like what is being accomplished there! ”
Salmon watcher profile
Islander Kelly Keenan was one of this year’s star salmon watchers—logging 30 hours observing and taking photos and video of the iconic fish. A native Texan, Kelly moved to Vashon five years ago and was drawn to nature, especially the orcas. A longtime photographer, her photos are used by local agencies to help identify individual whales. For Kelly, it was a natural extension to become interested in salmon, the orcas’ main food source.
In their time along upper Judd Creek, Kelly and her kids, Mallory, 7, and Gavin, 4, captured stunning photos and video of coho building redds, mating and protecting their territory. Kelly was also uncannily good at finding salmon carcasses. “I’d be walking by and a fishy smell would waft by my nose, and sure enough it would lead me to a carcass—I felt like a tracking dog,” she says. Kelly was also able to get unusually close to the fish, which never seemed to spook as she moved in for a close-up. This month Kelly learned she was pregnant, and muses that her strong sense of smell and ability to commune with the mother salmon wasn’t an accident. “I was spawning as they were spawning,” she says laughing.
Spending so much time with the coho, Kelly began to research salmon behavior and spent so much time creek-side that she could easily pick out redds (salmon nests), and got to know individual fish and where they would be along the creek. She was surprised by the aggressiveness of both males and the females as they fought to protect their genetic future.
“Twice I saw a female run off another female from a redd site—more aggressively than a male,” she says. “Males slowly got more aggressive; the females immediately tried to bite the other female.” The biggest fight she witnessed involved one male grabbing the other in its jaws and throwing it downstream; she also saw one fish lose an eye in such an encounter.
Kelly marked many of the redd sites and will return in February to see if she can spy any alevin (newly hatched salmon). She also anxiously awaits next year’s salmon return, when she’ll be toting her own “hatchling” along for the ride. Kelly hopes more people will join the 2013 Salmon Watchers.
“It’s important for people on the island to know about the salmon,” she says. “To know that what they’re washing their cars with, what they’re putting on their garden, what they’re fertilizing their lawn with is all is running off into the streams. What the salmon are ingesting is what we're ingesting when we eat them. This is a great way for people to see for themselves and get interested, and be more inclined to take care of their environment.”