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Red Bull for the Creek

Originally published as “To Save the Rivers and the Woods, Try Hurling a Few Dead Fish” by Mother Jones, August 9, 2017. 

One cool September day, I visited a fish hatchery in Sweet Home, Oregon, a lumber town in the foothills of the Cascades east of Corvallis. I was there to see the year’s final holding of spring Chinook salmon collected, spawned, and ultimately tossed into a local creek as “stream enrichment”: fertilizer for the ecosystem. I would follow them up the highway as they were delivered to a small tributary of the South Santiam River that had lost its wild fish and thus, for decades, been starved of the important nutrients that salmon gather at sea.

When I arrived at the hatchery, a group of teenage volunteers from Sweet Home High was busy helping technicians with the harvest of sperm and glowing, orange eggs to spawn the next generation of salmon fry. This miracle of procreation, orchestrated by hand in a few hundred square feet with the aid of knives, once occurred across hundreds of stair-stepped, free-flowing miles of tributaries along the upper South Santiam, which eventually flows to the Willamette River, the Columbia, and then the Pacific. But in 1968, a dam was built above the hatchery, which prevented natural salmon runs from reaching these beautiful spawning waters naturally.

Today, on average, only about 200 wild salmon are tanker-trucked around the reservoir each year by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to breed in the upper watershed—a relic of former times, a pittance. This presents a conundrum, because we’ve learned that salmon play a crucial role in keeping forests healthy. When they die, their bodies decompose along banks, where the tree roots and creatures absorb their fertile nutrients. Nitrogen, especially, is a key gift to forests, because it’s needed for both chlorophyll, which is essential to photosynthesis, and nucleic acids, which are found at the heart of every cell.

Because of logging, dams, and now climate change, the wild salmon populations in the Northwest are a fraction of what they were. Within 80 feet of the streams where salmon nest and decompose, tree-growth rates can be triple that of nearby salmonless rivers. This accelerated tree growth is important because it means bankside groves will require far fewer years to produce—or reestablish—large trees critical to the health of salmon runs. A vigorous canopy shades streams, optimizing temperatures for eggs buried in gravel nests, called redds, and also prevents erosion, which can clog the interstices in the gravel that deliver oxygen to embryos. Leaves that fall into the stream feed insects, which salmon young then devour. Moreover, trees drop branches and ultimately topple into streams, where they form logjams that slow water, and so catch and retain gravel for spawning. The larger the trunk, the better to withstand annual and periodic floods, and behind them, adult and juvenile salmon can find shelter from torrents or everyday current. In this way, fish carry the health and rehabilitation of their own habitat on their backs, in their very being. They spur new canopy and large woody debris that their own brood and future generations depend on.

Read more and see some photos at Mother Jones.