A Fish Tale

March 20, 2024

Yikes, what’s with this bright red, three-foot-long creature flopping around MY backyard? How the heck did it get here?

Well, it’s a fascinating fish-story if there ever was one. Let’s take a moment to tell the tale.

These behemoths are colloquially referred to as “salmon,” the most common along the North Coast of California being coho (Oncorhynchus kisutch) and Chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). If you’re someone whose turf is infested, consider yourself lucky. There are fewer and fewer people who suffer from this particular backyard “malady” nowadays. Salmon may be tenacious swimmers and famous for surviving epic migrations across thousands of miles, but they are much harder to find than they were a century ago.

Salmon live life traveling in one big loop. They emerge from their eggs in freshwater streams and rivers after just a few weeks or months of growth. Next, they spend several months hiding from predators in their nests and in small, shallow pools. They face long odds – only 1% or so of these eggs survive to adulthood. As the hatchlings grow and get bigger, they venture into deeper waters within the river. There they will continue growing for one to two years. Then they begin to turn a silvery color. This offers better protection as they can blend in with the ocean while they move into the lagoons and estuaries at the mouths of rivers. Here, they acclimate to salt water, and then they move to live the bulk of their lives in the ocean until they’re given the cue that it’s time to come home.

How does this happen?

Adults sense changes in their environment caused by the first decent rains of the year. Different species follow a different “clock.” The coho come home to spawn after about three years while Chinook are can take up to seven years to return to the exact rivers and streams where they were spawned. 

During this arduous trip, salmon will search to find suitable spawning habitat. They crave cool, clear water flowing over beds of gravel. They will fight for nest space, court mates, spawn, and then die. 

This trip home takes its life-ending toll. Not every adult makes it back. 

While homeward bound, salmon do not eat, their scales are scraped off from rocks, and they are constantly preyed upon. This may seem sad, but it’s an essential part of the ecosystem’s health. Salmon deaths are genetically programmed to occur during this journey. Their bodies decay and nourish both the water they’re in and the surrounding forests.

This cycle of birth-growth-travel-transformation-and return has been going on since long before recorded history. But while they’re often depicted in massive schools fighting their way upstream, California’s salmon are currently a fraction of what they were a century ago. Centuries of logging, damming, and water diversion has sent an unnatural amount of sediment into our watersheds, burying the gravel beds salmon need as dams came up and blocked migration routes. Perhaps some of the worst blows came in 1955 and 1964, when both years experienced historic flooding that flushed a century’s worth of logging sediment into our waterways, essentially “flattening” rivers and destroying the complex network of deep pools salmon spend the summers in addition to spawning beds.

California’s salmon are in a fight for their very existence, but they have allies! 

The Klamath River is currently the site of the largest dam removal project in U.S. history. The Eel River is slated to have its dams come down, and a dedicated network of conservation groups are pouring countless hours into restoration projects to assure that bright red, three-foot-long critter in your “backyard” will be a much more common sight in the future.

So chill out. Flop down next to that fish. And say hello.

Or maybe just take a picture?