By Katelyn Hale, Community Engagement Specialist | November 2020
Part 2 of 2: Salmon Spawning on Still Creek
An-ad-rom-ous : Chinook salmon are anadromous fish, meaning that they are born in freshwater, spend a portion of their lives in saltwater, then return to freshwater to spawn. Five species of Pacific salmon, as well as Steelhead Trout, are anadromous.
Chinook salmon are a keystone species for the greater ecosystem that covers the entire Pacific Northwest! These are the salmon that orca whales chase after off the coast of Washington. These are the same salmon that bald eagles dive for at the Sandy River Delta. After their incredible journey from these homewaters, out to the ocean, and then back again, it’s the least we can do to help improve their chances of spawning and make their homewaters more welcoming.
Last month I joined retired fish biologist and Council member Howard Schaller for a tour of Still Creek, a tributary of the Sandy River over a hundred river miles from the Pacific Ocean. Just like their ancestors, Chinook salmon have traveled all the way back from the Pacific to spawn in their home waters.
Howard explained a bit about how these salmon, in their final stages of life, build their nests. After swimming hundreds or even thousands of miles, female salmon find a place in the stream to create a nest. They use their tails and bodies to move larger gravel (or “cobble”) into a pile. One way to spot a redd is the color of the gravel and cobble stones will be much brighter, because in the process of digging their redd, the fish almost scrub the stones clean. The female fish will lay eggs in the pit, and a male will fertilize them. The female will cover the nest back up with cobble while the male guards the redd so no other males try to fertilize it. The two take turns guarding the nest until the end of their life.
These fish get one chance to spawn, and that’s it. If they make it all the way up here to spawn, they die shortly afterwards. As their bodies decompose, other animals come along to feed on them: bears, birds, insects, (oh my!). With their eggs fertilized in their redd, and their bodies expired, the circle of life continues to turn.
Still Creek is a huge resource for spawning spring Chinook salmon, no doubt in response to all of the restoration work over the past two decades and the removal of Marmot dam in 2008. In 2016, ODFW counted 435 redds in Still Creek, more than any other creek in the Sandy River Basin. This is one creeks in this area with the highest density of redds, i.e. most spring Chinook salmon spawning (for what it’s worth, the other creeks with a high-density of redds, at least in 2016, are Clear Fork Creek and Final Falls on Salmon River).
SRWC works with government agencies who collect data on spawning salmon. For example, as Howard and I were talking, we saw two ODFW staff walking the stream, conducting a spawning survey. They cut the tails off of the deceased fish to show they have been counted. This data is then released the next year, and influences a long list of decisions made by ODFW and other agencies.
Chinook salmon are critical for the natural ecosystems, and for our social and cultural ways of life. These fish are the descendants of fish that have been here for millenia, and are central to the spiritual and cultural identities of indigenous nations throughout this region. We all need these fish in so many ways that we don’t even understand yet. Native and non-native people depend on these fish for their ways of life, from 100 miles out in the Pacific Ocean to just off of Glenn Otto Park in Troutdale, Oregon. The SRWC aims to support these fish in every life stage in any way we can. That’s why we work so hard to maintain and protect their habitat throughout the Sandy River basin.