Reintroducing Salmon into the Reed Canyon
by Nathan Coutsoubos '97
The following article was published in a 1996 issue of Reed Magazine. Copyright ©1996 Reed College
This article is being published as a historical reference. Some information may no longer be current.
In the past century, many of the Pacific Northwest's abundant salmon stocks have declined precipitously as a result of an all-out human assault: overfishing, habitat degradation, and blockade of spawning waters by hydropower dams. Across the region, numerous unique local salmon runs have been pushed up to, and, all too often, over the brink of extinction. Included in the now-extinct runs is the population found until recently in the Reed canyon.
The Reed College Green Board, a student-run organization working to improve campus ecology and environmental practices, is responding to this regional crisis by acting at the local level. They have built a fish box, in which fertilized salmon eggs can be safely sequestered until hatching. At that point, the hatchlings will be released into the stream that drains the canyon lake, where they will live and grow. As they mature, they will migrate into Johnson Creek, then down the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, and finally to the sea. After living at sea for some years, they will return to the Reed canyon to spawn and begin the process anew. The technology originated centuries ago with West Coast Native American groups in order to maintain fishing stocks. More recently, fish boxes have seen widespread use as a means for anyone who wishes to contribute to the well-being of salmon populations.
"It's just been in the last 15 years or so that salmon have disappeared from the stream for reasons unknown," explained Green Board coordinator Bruce Moreira '97. "The end goal is to have a fully functional, genetically diverging population of salmon in our canyon. From a conservation standpoint that's all we can do--we can only reintroduce the same species from another area. We can never regain the genetic diversity that has been lost."
While the native salmon of Reed are gone forever, the Green Board hopes to replace them with fish who will learn to call the canyon home and, eventually, become a unique population in their own right.
In theory, the means to build and maintain a working fish box are simple enough. In practice, however, as with most endeavors, it has taken a little more gumption and elbow grease than originally expected.
A habitat quality assessment by the Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (ODFW) of the segment of lower canyon chosen for reintroduction was encouraging, but also indicated the need for improvements in the streamside ecology before fish could be introduced. "We've been trying to modify the stream hydrodynamically to make it more like what natural streams are, trying to make more pools, trying to create heterogeneity in the stream so it's more amiable for the fish to live there," explained Moreira. "That wasn't too hard," added Green Board member Nick Manoukis '97. "We basically rummaged up some logs and things from the bank and threw them in."
As part of their continuing mission to protect and preserve the canyon, the Green Board has been waging a long-term campaign against destructive non-native plant species, and the ODFW recommendations for the salmon project fitted nicely into the existing plan. "We removed a lot of invasive species from the immediate banks of the stream itself," continued Manoukis, "to ensure that native species that provide the right amount of shade and bank stability for the stream would be able to grow up there. With those in place, they should keep the temperature of the water about right for the salmon." Habitat restoration is an ongoing project, as the canyon is an ideal environment for tenacious, invasive vines such as Himalayan blackberry, English ivy, and clematis.
Once site restoration was under way, attention then turned to building the fish box. As students at a rigorous liberal arts school prided for honing scholarly minds, the Green Board members found themselves lacking the necessary carpentry skills. With a few tips from experienced builders, however, the construction proceeded smoothly.
"We pretty much mostly built it all in one day," said Manoukis. "To see our intellectual brainchild become a wooden structure over just six hours was very satisfying. After getting the materials in one place, and getting all the people there on the same day, it just sort of came together. The guidance of Allen Poole '93, SEEDS (Students for Education, Empowerment, and Direct Service) director, and his expertise with the tools, definitely saved a lot of time and effort."
Throughout the process, the Green Board received additional expert help from a number of sources. "Rob Mack '93 has also been very helpful, especially in the early organization of the project. And the physical plant office has really gone out of its way, helping us to work through the problems of installing this and the logistics of it," said Moreira.
"The physical plant office was totally instrumental to us being able to start the salmon project," said Manoukis. "They gave us basically the green light to do whatever we thought was important and pointed us to people who we might talk to." One such tip from Director of Facilities Operations Townsend Angell led the Green Board to Clyde Brummel, an area resident downstream from the college who has been running a successful fish box for over 20 years. Brummel and his son Bob shared the practical insights gained from their long experience rearing salmon and also provided hard-to-find specialty building materials.
The box was installed the end of March and test-run through the end of school in May. Because the first complement of eggs won't be available from ODFW until the fall, there will be plenty of time to fine-tune the box and continue habitat restoration. Starting next autumn, as the operation shifts into high gear, the Green Board hopes to hatch and release three clutches of fish per year, with chinook salmon in the fall and steelhead trout and coho salmon in the spring.
But they aren't stopping with that. Recognizing the potential educational value of their labor, the Green Board has recently begun thinking about incorporating the project into the context of the area community. Manoukis explained: "We've been thinking of bringing in a grade school group for a field day and showing them our hatching operation, show them how the box works and some fingerlings, and have them take part in the actual release of larvae into the stream. That's the kind of contact I think that young people need with the natural environment so they can make more informed decisions once they become adults. I think that it's our duty to inform future generations in a way that they'll feel more able to deal with conservation issues."
Moreira agreed that, with the salmon seemingly unable to survive human pressures, it falls upon humans to accept the role of steward: "The canyon used to be part of their habitat, and our human activities have eliminated that, and I think that it's our moral and ethical responsibility as human beings to return these species to their native habitats, to attempt to restore some of the damage we have done."
The members of the Reed College Green Board are counting on their toil to do just that. By beginning local salmon reintroduction on campus, they hope to contribute toward the resolution of a regional problem. At the same time, by initiating a dialogue with the community, they hope to ensure that the problems themselves and their potential solutions are not forgotten. So, when visiting Reed in the future, take a stroll down to the canyon, enjoy the sights and sounds, and keep an eye open for a silvery flash in the stream. If the Green Board has its way, it'll be a whole mess of salmon, coming soon to a watershed near you.
Nathan Coutsoubos, a junior majoring in biology, comes from Battle Ground, Washington.