I dreamed about salmon last night, because I knew I was going to have a chance to see them today—here on Bainbridge Island—something I’ve never done. I have a feeling the harbor seal trying to get to them through the culvert at the tip of Eagle Harbor this morning dreamed about them last night too—and likely many other nights.
But this seal this morning didn’t get what it was after. The four Chums had already made it up through the culvert and into Cooper Creek, a small shallow rocky waterway that flows out from Eagle Harbor under Wyatt Way near Eagle Harbor Drive.
I was lucky, because I was with fish biologist and Bainbridge salmon expert Wayne Daley. If anyone can find salmon, he can. And he did today, with salmon enthusiast Joe Michael and me tagging along for the thrill. And a thrill it is to see the huge fish thrashing upstream next to a road you’ve taken hundreds, thousands of times.
We didn’t just get to watch them swim. They were at the very end of their life journey. As they surged up against the current to just the right spot, the female turned onto her side and dug out a hole in the rocky bottom with her tail. Ouch. And as she laid her eggs into the depression, a large male was right beside her ready to deposit his sperm over them before she buried them for safekeeping.
Within about ten days, these furiously driven parents will be utterly spent and lifeless, destined never to meet their offspring.
Daley explained to me that the eggs will take 60 to 80 days to hatch, depending on water temperature and other conditions. To survive, the eggs will have to luck out, avoiding the watching eyes of eagles and seagulls, who sometimes dig them out and eat them. If they make it to the hatchling stage, a world of threat awaits, making their chances of returning to their home to spawn as their parents did (by smell) one-tenth of 1 percent.
Not good odds. And yet there they were: huge beautiful specimens fulfilling their life cycle today in a moment of hope for the next generation of Bainbridge salmon. Grow! Go! And then come back. . . .
Speaking of chance, these adult salmon may well be the first generation of returning fry raised by volunteers from the Bainbridge Island Watershed Council. For the past five years, Daley and other dedicated salmon advocates have raised and released 15,000 fingerlings each season, with eggs provided by the Suquamish Tribe. During the rearing process, three times a day volunteers tended a 15-foot-long tank, feeding the wee fish, keeping their water fresh and temperature-regulated over the course of 4 to 5 weeks until the young fish reached a length of 2 to 2.5 inches, giving them a better-than-usual chance at survival in the wild.
There is a lot of talk about salmon in the Northwest. And that is because they are genuinely critical members of our ecosystem, supplying food for countless wildlife and providing vital nutrients to our forests and streams from the waste of the myriad animals who feed on them, from otters to bears to raccoons to orcas to herons to other fish and so on.
On Bainbridge, there are currently two streams that have returning salmon in them—Cooper Creek and Springridge Brook, which flows into Fletcher Bay and can be accessed from Fletcher Bay Road, west of the corner of Miller and Fletcher. Daley explained that Coho are returning to Springridge largely because of culvert work that the City did to keep the road from collapsing, with salmon-friendly tiers built along the steepest section, an effort encouraged by salmon advocates.
Two other Bainbridge waterways will most likely see returning salmon through November and possibly beyond: Issei Creek, at the south end of Miller just south of Bainbridge Gardens; and Schel-chelb Creek and estuary off of Lynwood Center Road a short ways on Point White Drive. Both Coho and Chum are expected to return there.
Daley has been working on “salmon return” for some 30 years. He explained that he finally ended his long-time work with the Eagle Scouts on principle because of the Boy Scouts’ anti-gay policy.
I asked him about the big picture for salmon. He said, “If we can use supplementation it’s a benefit. . . . But people are using pesticides for their perfect lawns, and nearby farm waste has compromised places like Springridge Brook,” making return rates erratic year to year despite intensive efforts for decades by countless volunteers. Daley knows all too well what anyone invested in salmon understands: If the water isn’t clean, the salmon will die.
Video by Julie Hall. Photos courtesy of Joe Michael, Wayne Daley, and by Julie Hall.