A fling at helping fish- Carcasses return nutrients for future salmon runs

By Lukas Velush
The Daily Herald Writer


ARLINGTON, WA - The salmon that return to the Stillaguamish Tribal Hatchery die a violent death but provide for future generations in more ways than one.

The fish are killed, usually with a blow to the head. Their sacrifice allows volunteers, technicians and biologists to harvest the eggs from the females and sperm from the males. Then, these two elements are blended together in pots.

The fertilized eggs hatch in small trays, and then are kept in a series of tanks until they are big enough to put into the river.

Cara Ianni, with the Stilly-Snohomish Fisheries Enhancement Task Force, throws a dead salmon into Kunz Creek in Arlington where the fish carcasses will provide nutrients.

It's all part of an unglamorous but necessary helping hand that adds numbers to the next generation of fish.

And that's just one way the fish make their contribution.

The other way is, after they're killed, many of their carcasses are collected, hauled off in trucks, and tossed into streams where live salmon haven't been seen in decades.

These rotting carcasses will feed future generations of fish, volunteer Erin Meyer explains as she flings carcasses over her shoulder and into Kunz Creek during a recent outing to the hills above Arlington.

In simple terms, the rich nutrients released when the fish decompose will feed the insects that hatchling fish - called fry - eat. Tossing the fish carcasses into the streams helps replicate the cycle of birth and death found in fish-bearing waters.

"The idea is to eventually get a natural run of salmon back up here again," Meyer said. "We don't really know how long that's going to take."

Kunz Creek is one of three tributaries of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River where dead fish are being returned to nature. More than 800 fish carcasses were tossed back into the wild since the fish flings started in late November.

The nonprofit Stilly-Snohomish Fisheries Enhancement Task Force is doing the work. The group gets its funding from state and federal wildlife agencies and from grants.

"This is fun, I don't care what people say," Meyer said as she used a fish poker to stab a dead fish and then loft it into the air. She is the task force's fish fling project leader.

Intern Michael Masters set the record for longest fish fling of the day, easily tossing one 30 feet. "Pike Place has got nothing on me," he said, referring to the fish mongers at the Seattle public market who hurl fish to entertain customers.

Meyer's yellow jumpsuit was splattered red with blood by the time the day's 150 fish were thrown into the stream. She and the other half-dozen volunteers were ready for a bath at the end of the day.

The task force was created by the Legislature in 1990 to help salmon populations rebound on the Stillaguamish and Snohomish Rivers. Volunteers also plant native plants, drop woody debris into streams and move obstacles that keep adult salmon from returning to their spawning grounds.

The state appreciates the work by those such as Harding.

"More nutrients would be a good thing (for many of these streams), but it's just a tool," said Curt Kraemer, regional fish program manager for the state.

Logs and other woody debris in streams keep the dead fish from washing out into Possession Sound, but they also give young fish good places to hide and look for food, Kraemer said. Obstacles still remain, such as crushed culverts too small for fish to swim through or drop-offs too high for fish to pass.

The task force is dumping this year's carcasses in Kunz, Rock and Harvey creeks because the Stillaguamish Tribe is working to remove manmade obstacles on those streams that have prevented salmon from spawning there.

Last spring the tribe also released 20,000 coho salmon fry in two of the three streams. Because the fish were already a year-and-a-half old when they were released, the tribe expects them to return to spawn next fall.

When the fish return, the streams should be filled with nutrients that will feed the insects that a new generation of naturally spawned fish will eat.

"They would find there way into these streams on their own eventually," said Kip Killebrew, a fisheries biologist for the tribe. "This just speeds up the process."

Pioneered in British Columbia, the practice of throwing dead hatchery fish into streams with low salmon populations is being used throughout the region, including by the Everett Salmon and Steelhead Club in Snohomish County.

Volunteers from the fishing club have been tossing as many as 6,000 dead coho per year into the upper reaches of the Pilchuck River and its tributaries for six years. The fish come from the state's Wallace River Hatchery in Sultan.

"If it helps get more fish back, then I'm willing to do it," said Mike Harding, a retired U.S. Postal Service employee and avid fisherman. He leads the club's fish-flinging expeditions. "If you're going to fish, then you've got to help the environment; you've got to give something back."

His outfit has dumped as many as 1,000 fish in one day, unloading huge bins filled with slippery, stinky carcasses one by one.

A veteran of many fish tossing outings, Harding knows how to dodge the goo that streams off each fish as it flies through the air. He dreams of the day when the club is able to buy a trailer with a hydraulic jack that will allow him to dump the fish directly into the streams.

Until then, his mantra is: "Take it nice and slow."



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