Chum Salmon Stories
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Whatever it Takes
By Jim Ames

© 2001 Harley Soltes/Seattle Times

We've all seen the pictures on local televison news. Every November and December Hood Canal's Skokomish River rises out of its banks, and many returning chum salmon are forced to swim across flooded roads to reach their spawning grounds. It is a compelling scene that illustrates how salmon manage to overcome sometimes monumental obstacles to continue their cycle of life.

In the photo above, a large male chum salmon is attempting to cross a flooded roadway in the lower Skokomish valley. Behind it, a dozen or so other salmon are awaiting their chance at a crossing. Many of these chum salmon will be successful in reaching their upstream spawning grounds, but others will be stranded by the receding flood waters and may die before spawning.

It is frequently stated that salmon represent an icon for Washington State, because these fish are such a integral part of our society. People from other parts of the country often have difficulty understanding the unique relationship that exists between salmon and the residents of the Pacific Northwest.

We celebrate the return of the salmon each year with first salmon ceremonies and community festivals, or by just quietly standing on the river bank observing the homecoming of the fish. Is the homage paid the salmon because our original inhabitants, the native Americans, revered these fish? Or, do we treasure salmon because for over 100 years they have been a tremendous commercial resource that helped to build the economy of the state? Perhaps we find salmon worthy because sport fisheries for the various species provide marvelous recreational opportunities for tens of thousands of local and visiting anglers? Or, do we just appreciate them because they make such wonderful table fare?

Salmon deserve their special status for all of those reasons, but more than anything because of their indomitable spirit. Salmon are the embodiment of a willingness to ceaselessly struggle, and ultimately succeed, against seemingly overwhelming obstacles.

The above photograph tells a story about how these particular chum salmon came to be in such a challenging situation. It also reveals a great deal about the spirit of the salmon and their "whatever it takes" approach to fulfilling their life cycle; factors which make them a worthy icon for Washington State.

The story takes place in the lower Skokomish River valley during late fall. A major rain storm has caused the Skokomish to overflow its banks, and the river has inundated the low-lying valley lands. As the flood level rose above the river's banks, the water flowed over farmlands, wooded areas, and roadways adjacent to the river.

Large numbers of chum salmon that have survived their years in the ocean are migrating upstream to reach their spawning grounds. These fish may be destined for a stream reach where they will spawn naturally, or they may be returning to a local salmon hatchery. The flood waters allowed the chum salmon to leave established stream channels and take more direct routes to their spawning streams. In some cases, these routes were through water that overlaid land areas that would be dry when the flood subsided. If the fish swimming through these flooded land areas do not quickly find their way to their home stream, receding water levels could leave some individuals stranded.

At the height of the flood, the water elevation was at least 2 feet above the level shown in the picture, as shown by the debris hanging from the fence in the background. The water flowing across the road is clear, which means that the flood is abating and the silt-laden waters of the Skokomish have receded. The clear waters are likely from a small tributary stream, undoubtably the home spawning stream of the chum salmon attempting to migrate upstream. The flow of water across the road indicates that the local stream's flow is still too high to follow its normal course to its point of joining with the mainstem Skokomish. It may be that a road culvert is blocked by debris, or is too small to accommodate the flooding stream.

As the flood waters receded, the fish in the photograph found themselves confined in a drainage ditch along the road. The salmon are orienting to the major source of stream flow, which in this case is the water flowing across the roadway. This flow of water across the roadway is the most direct route for continuing their migration. There may be other passageways upstream, which will become more attractive once the water falls below the road level. Or, there may not be any other routes.

The water depth on the roadway is very shallow, making the attempt to cross a hazardous undertaking for the migrating chum salmon. The large male has charged halfway across, still in an upright position. He is near the point where he will topple onto his side, and then his progress will become much more difficult. The salmon are forced to expend tremendous amounts of energy fighting this obstacle; energy reserves that are needed to complete their migration and spawning cycle.

This is a very dangerous time for these chum salmon. They are vulnerable to harassment (or even death) caused by humans, dogs, or other large animals. At this point it is not possible to determine the ultimate outcome of this particular chum salmon's struggle. However, it seems likely that he will make it across the road and continue upstream to spawn.

The fate of the other fish waiting in the road ditch is even less clear. The longer they wait to attempt the road crossing, the lower the water will drop. The water flowing across the roadway is already nearly too shallow for the fish to pass. In a matter of hours, the receding water levels will force the remaining chum salmon to find another route upstream if they are to resume their migration, and complete their life cycle.

If the receding waters leave no alternate passageway upstream, the salmon will not give up. It might be that another flood will occur soon enough to provide passage, or perhaps thoughtful people will remove obstructions that block upstream migration. The salmon will continue to fight to find a way upstream until they are successful, or until their energy resources are totally expended and they die. But, they will never quit.

Note: WDFW thanks photographer Harley Soltes and the Seattle Times for granting permission to use the above copyrighted photograph on the agency web site.