PAT NEAL: The rivers’ babies are disappearing

Looking at a baby salmon, it’s hard to believe that something not much bigger than a mosquito larvae could have such a tremendous impact on everything from fish ducks to the orca, but they do.

Right about now, this year’s hatch of baby salmon is venturing out into the world. Their parents had laid them as eggs in a gravel nest sometime last autumn. The eggs developed into a larvae-like creature called an alevin that fed on its own yolk sack. Emerging from the gravel, they are called parr or fry. With a little luck, they will survive a period in fresh water and migrate downstream to the ocean as smolts. With even more luck, a small percentage of these young salmon will return to their home rivers where people call them everything from blue-backs to sore-backs.

Along the way, the salmon feed an entire ecosystem through every stage of their lives, starting with the baby fish ducks who appeared, coincidentally, a day or two after the baby salmon were hatched.

The mother merganser lays her eggs high in a hollow cottonwood tree so the first thing the baby fish ducks have to do is to jump out of it. They hit the ground running to the river where nearly every living creature wants to eat them. This is a well-disciplined brood that sometimes rides down the rapids at the height of the spring flood on their mother’s back. The chicks grew up fast on a diet of regurgitated fish. I once saw a mother merganser with 21 chicks. These days, there are very few merganser mothers that have more than one chick while small flocks of barren hens lounge on the gravel bars with no chicks at all. Perhaps the number 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 river, but it will have to do until a better method comes along.

The great blue heron has become a rare sight on the river. They used to wade along the edge of a pool in the river where the mergansers fish. The fact that there are so few herons on the rivers these days is a sobering thought with disturbing implications.

Even the belted kingfisher is becoming scarce. These little birds’ call sounds like someone shaking a can of rocks. With a beak too big for its head and a head too big for its body, the kingfisher flies in a manner totally against the laws of science. Hovering above the river, they dive down to catch a fish then shoot back out of the water like a ballistic missile.

Families of river otters used to be a common sight too, but individuals are rarely seen these days, and no babies have been observed.

We used to blame these fish-eaters for eating fish, but they were an indicator of a healthy ecosystem. With the salmon gone, the creatures that depended on them are going away too. The forest itself has been diminished without the fertilization that the spawned-out salmon carcasses represent.

Even worse than the fate of all the varmints and fish ducks put together was the effect of the elimination of the salmon on the humans. Many of these salmon-dependent people have simply disappeared. Their extinction eliminated the culture of salmon fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile, precious little is being done to restore the salmon. Our salmon are now worth more as an endangered species revenue stream for government agencies than as a foundation of our ecosystem.

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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 [email protected]

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