Feeding The System

Feeding The System

Chris Tompkins likes dead fish. For the past four years he's spent every other autumn weekend loading his truck with a putrid soup of dead, decaying fish.

Chris Tompkins likes dead fish. For the past four years he's spent every other autumn weekend loading his truck with a putrid soup of dead, decaying fish. Chris, whose day job is working as a research scientist, drives this nauseating load into the Cascade Mountains in Washington State from which the tributaries of the Skykomish River flow. When he finds a convenient spot, say a bridge, Chris dumps hundreds of pounds of rotting coho salmon over the rail. Don't worry; he has a permit--and he'd like your help. The dead fish might just save pacific salmon and steelhead.

Pacific salmon are the keystone to the Northwest's river ecosystems: Each year salmon return by the thousands to their natal streams to spawn and die. Their carcasses, still full of the energy stored up during the cohos' long ocean sojourn, recharge the streams with nutrients that sustain the resident juvenile salmon, steelhead and other organisms. However, when salmon returns drop or disappear altogether, the relatively infertile mountain streams suffer dramatically in an interconnected web of ways: No salmon carcasses means no food for salmon and steelhead fry, no food for the insects and baitfish that juvenile salmon and steelhead eat and so on through the food chain. In fact, data collected by Dr. Robert Bilby show that when salmon carcasses are present in a stream, 90 percent of the carbon nutrients in all of the stream's organisms come

from them. The implication, of course, is that as salmon returns have decreased so too have the number of carcasses available to feed the stream ecosystem.

Enter Chris and his dead fish.

Even salmon raised in hatcheries have the instinctive urge to return to their natal stream to spawn, in this case the hatchery, and that is where Chris goes to collect the dead ones. In the past, after the hatchery technicians removed the eggs and milt they needed, these fish would be sold to fertilizer producers or just go to waste. Now, some of those salmon carcasses are going where they were meant to go: into the stream.

On a typical weekend, 10-15 people show up to help Chris. They put loads of fish into their trucks and head high into the watershed to deposit them in headwater streams. These streams are home to coho and chum salmon, bull trout and steelhead--all of which benefit from the carcasses. The ideal deposit site is easily accessible and contains obstacles like blow-downs that will prevent the carcasses from washing away quickly.

"You'd be amazed," Chris says. "You throw a carcass out and shortly it is just covered with caddis." Salmon and steelhead feed heavily on the caddis and other insects (as well as on the carcasses themselves), and the more they eat--and the more body mass they pack on before migrating out to sea--the better their chances of surviving and making it back to spawn.

The overall goal is to return the system to a place where it can once again sustain itself. "If we can increase the number of fish returning to these streams, the carcasses will return on their own," Chris says. The program deposits around 10,000 pounds of dead salmon per season; a sizeable number sure, but nowhere near the historic returns. "We're making an impact," Chris says, "but it would be great to get five times that amount."

Unfortunately, the freak weather the Northwest experienced this winter was a serious setback for the program. "We didn't have any carcasses because of the drought, and then the rains washed out our access roads," Chris says. "It's kind of a bummer for us." With many of the roads they used indefinitely closed, Chris has begun petitioning private property owners for alternative access spots.

There is no getting around one thing this program involves: the smell. "It's really nasty; it depends on how long the fish have been sitting and how warm it is," Chris admits.

Want to help? Contact Chris Tompkins at: 206-362-6358 or visit northshoretu.org.