PAT NEAL: The fate of the fish ducks

For some, the New Year begins on Jan. 1. Out on our rivers, the new year begins with the emergence of the baby salmon from the gravel they were planted in last fall.

This is a cause for celebration.

After a century of over-fishing, pollution, environmental destruction and government policies that doom them to extinction, it’s not a question of what happened to the salmon, but why is there one salmon left?

The fact that the salmon have survived volcanoes, ice ages and the invention of nylon testifies to just how hard it’s been to eliminate this most important element in our ecosystem, the salmon.

Most everyone is familiar with the water cycle: how water evaporates from our ocean to form clouds that travel inland to drop water, forming rivers that flow back into the ocean.

The salmon cycle operates in the same way — exchanging energy from the ocean to the mountains and back, sustaining all life along the river, from the smallest bug to the largest tree with the spawned-out remains of their bodies.

That cycle is just beginning now.

Little schools of these tiny fish are wiggling out of the rocks to swim through the shallows on their years-long journey to the ocean and back during which everything wants to eat them.

Starting with the mergansers.

The male merganser, with his green head and large white belly, looks like a drake mallard. Instead of having a duck bill like a mallard, the merganser has a pointed, serrated beak they use to catch fish. Their feet are located toward the rear of the bird for maximum underwater propulsion.

Even the white belly is a form of camouflage that makes the bird difficult for the fish to see from below.

In comparison, female mergansers look like something the cat drug in.

She’s a boring brown, black and grey with a pathetic little red crest on top.

She’s built to blend in. She’ll be making her nest in a hollow of a cottonwood tree while the male migrates to Alaska with his pals to take care of his feathers.

Once the chicks hatch, they have to hit the ground running for the river that’s high from melting snow, where everything wants to eat them.

This is a well-disciplined brood that sometimes rides down the rapids on their mother’s back.

The chicks grow up fast on a diet of regurgitated fish.

Eventually, the mother will teach her chicks to hunt fish by swimming along with their heads under water looking for prey — a practice that some uncharitable bird watchers compare to texting while driving.

I once saw a mother merganser with 21 chicks. While the numbers of baby mergansers hatched by their mothers in a given year may not be an indication of the health of a salmon population on a salmon river, it will have to do until a better method comes along.

Twenty years ago, it was not uncommon to see a mother fish duck with a dozen or more chicks. This year, merganser broods are averaging about four or five. With the salmon gone, the animals and birds that depended on them are going away, too.

The forest itself is malnourished without the fertilization the spawned-out salmon carcasses provide.

Then, there is the human cost of the extinction of the salmon.

Much like the elimination of the mergansers, the extinction of the salmon has largely eliminated the culture of fishing among the people who depended on salmon for their food and livelihood.

With the salmon gone, people who fish for them could share the unfortunate fate of the fish ducks.

_________

Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwildlife@gmail.com.