The circle of life: Salmon edition!

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Written by SOLVE Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest Member Nicole Poletto

Clackamas High School Salmon toss on 11.16.12

It’s the circle of life, and it moves us all” – The Lion King

Now that we are all secretly singing Elton John, let’s talk about the incredible circle of life of Salmon!  By tossing salmon in the stream, we are helping to facilitate the historical cycle of nutrients in the upper reaches of the Clackamas river and encouraging more salmon to spawn there (thus encouraging the circle of life, get it?)

You could feel in the cool, crisp air that today was not your typical watch-the-clock Friday (you didn’t even need the sweet aroma of dead salmon to tell you that).   Today the students would not only get to help perpetuate the cycle of nutrients to improve the health of the watershed, they would also get to learn about the different native plants in the riparian zone AND get their hands covered in salmon guts in a dissection.  Meghan, Nicole, Briana and Morgan from SOLVE, Jeff from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Becki from Clackamas River Basin Council, and even local media were waiting for the students as they piled out of the bus.  There were three stations in the fun-filled day: the salmon toss itself,  a native Plant ID tour, and a salmon dissection.

Students lined up, assembly line style, to collect and throw salmon carcasses in the stream.  Of course there were throwing competitions.  Who can throw the frozen dead salmon the farthest?! Just your casual Friday morning.

These frozen salmon had to be pried apart with a crowbar!  Luckily our strong Clackamas students were there for the job.

For those of us that enjoy plants more than bloody salmon, Meghan from SOLVE was there to the rescue!  We learned how to ID native plants and with our trained eye we could recognize how healthy the riparian zone was!  There were hardly any invasive species to be found, only a plethora of diverse native species that were providing habitat and food to native animal species (which are in the same food web as our salmon!).  The tall Douglas Firs were providing shade for the creek, keeping that water nice and cool: perfect for salmon habitat.

Nicole from SOLVled the students in a salmon dissection.  After learning more about the external anatomy of salmon, the students were eager to begin.  Scissors in hand, they began to cut out the gills.  Gills are incredibly efficient, they extract 80% of the dissolved oxygen in water unlike human lungs that extract only 25% of the oxygen in the air.  It took some elbow grease to cut the fish open, but soon we were identifying things such as they pyloric caeca (spaghetti looking intestine) and the swim bladder (inflated balloon inside the fish).  The swim bladder allows the fish to stabilize their movement in the pressure of the water, and it is just below the spine, which is why fish float upside down when they die.

Through the dissection we discovered that salmon lay about 2500 eggs!  But this year’s salmon returns were a little lower than usual.  Why might that be?  What happens to the eggs throughout their life cycle?  Only about 15%of the eggs live to hatch, leaving 375.  Of those remaining, only 30 will last the first year.  4 salmon reach adulthood in the sea but only 2 salmon will live to spawn and die.  2! out of 2,500! (That is a pretty low return rate).

Salmon “Circle of Life”                                         Alevin (newly hatched salmon) have their food sac attached and stay in the nest.  When they transform into silver-colored smolt (1-3 years) the smolt head to the sea and undergo body changes while in the estuary to adapt to saltwater.  Once the salmon have matured in the sea, they return to their freshwater birthplace to spawn and die.                                               Photo: canned salmon.com

It was a rather chilly Friday morning, so we were thankful to huddle around the fire while eating some deliciously baked salmon and tea.  Once we thawed, the students kicked back and reflected on some thought-provoking prompts about the day.  The first question asked the students to pretend to be a salmon real estate agent and “sell” this healthy riparian corridor to other spawning salmon:

Imagine this: a cool cold bubbly clear world.  Full of all the most luxurious treats.  Cold 48o water, dark from the shade, yet clear with little to no sediment.  Bubbles of oxygen floating, surrounding you.  The perfect place to give new life and allow yours to come to a peaceful natural close.  Get your little piece of heaven here, at Clear Creek.

The students also pretended to be salmon and reflected on their life’s journey from birth to death:

I, am alive. Hatch, the water immediately to my senses.  What to do?  I have a tail, swim.  I flow with the current.  I eat, I grow.  I go to the ocean, the water is different here, the water stiller.  I fight my way back, jumping, wriggling, climbing ladders.  So hungry, there is a bright colored food, I bite it but it stings and pulls me toward the surface.  I wriggle away wounded and hobble my way back to where I came.  I leave my young.  I die.  The cycle goes on.

Students posing with some new friends

We need salmon and salmon need us to take care of the oceans, rivers, and streams to continue on their amazing journey in the circle of life.  Thanks for your dedication Clackamas High School!

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