Thursday, July 9, 2015

Setting Steelhead Free

The Wilson River from the bridge at the Forest Center.  This popular swimming hole is already at water levels more typical of late August.
Every fall, the Tillamook Forest Center receives salmon eggs from the Trask River Hatchery in Tillamook, which they hatch in a big tank where visitors can watch them grow and develop. When the fry are ready, they have a release celebration and kids can set the tiny fish free.  And every winter, they receive wild steelhead trout eggs for a March release.  Except this year. It was late June when we stopped by the Forest Center for their "winter steelhead" release.  Wild steelhead are captured by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, spawn in captivity, and are then released while the eggs are hatched in controlled conditions.  Water levels were so low that the steelhead could not make it up the rivers to spawn anything like on schedule, which is a serious problem for them. Steelhead eggs and babies require cool, clear and clean water. I suspect this very late spawning created serious challenges for the offspring, especially combined with record heat.  Not only is the heat hard on the fish, but shallow water must make it way easier for them to be picked off by predators. A park ranger explained that in fact their region did not receive dramatically less rainfall this winter, but instead the rain happened nearly all at once.  Rain actually takes quite a long time to seep through the soil and into streams, and the result is that water should keep flowing for a long time after our rainy weather stops.  This year the soil quickly became saturated and stopped absorbing more. Then most of the rain water simply poured into rivers and streams and was quickly gone. 

Steelhead trout have a similar life cycle to salmon.  One big difference is that while salmon die after spawning, adult steelhead are capable of returning to the ocean and repeating the cycle the following year. It is known that an especially lucky steelhead returned to spawn 9 times!   Jasper was excited to set them free and wish them well on their journey. 

Kids get the baby trout in paper cups to carry to Jones Creek for a gentle release.
Jasper watches his baby steelhead surveying its new home.
Piggyback plant.
Monterey centaury.
Bird's foot trefoil.

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