Low Salmon Returns, The Blob, and Raising Awareness

By Heath Keirstead | February 6, 2020

The Pacific Ocean, so resilient and yet so susceptible to a changing climate. In the north Pacific, the Blob has returned this year. The Blob is a large area of exceptionally warm ocean water caused when unusually warm air temperatures keep heat trapped in ocean waters. The Blob causes an overproduction of phytoplankton and toxic algal blooms. Furthermore, when ocean temperatures are warm, copepods do not build up large fatty reserves, reducing their nutritive value for the salmon that depend on them for bulking up.

The first time this phenomenon occurred was in 2015-2016. In 2015 juvenile salmon experienced in-stream drought conditions, then migrated to an ocean without the food resources to support them. In the fall of 2019, those fish returned to their natal streams. According to ODFW’s Willamette Falls Annual Fish Passage Counts summary, the ten-year average return rate for adult spring chinook is 36,880. In 2019, only 18,882 were counted.

At Salmon Watch, we teach students about the healthy freshwater habitats salmon rely on for reproductive success. On one field trip this fall, I had a great conversation with a parent chaperone about the Blob and low fish returns. He said, “We need to be talking to more people about this.” Salmon Watch gives us a chance to talk about the close-at-hand and far-reaching impacts of human choices and actions on habitats and species.

Some of the things seen at Clemens Park this fall included a river otter, American dipper, rough-skinned newts, several juvenile lamprey, and, pictured below, piggyback plants, and various fungi, ferns and mosses. Small things can have a big impact on the hearts and minds of us all.

Through Salmon Watch we reach close to 1,000 people in Benton County each year with first-hand connection and understanding of local watersheds and how we contribute to their health. Between October 10 and November 13, 2019, we ran 16 Salmon Watch field trips at Clemens Park for about 750 students living in Benton County. About 63 volunteers worked 100 volunteer shifts, with ten of those shifts in Spanish. Teenage students from College Hill Alternative High School and Kings Valley Charter School delivered lessons on four of the field trips.

A College Hill student teaches elementary students about water quality.
A College Hill student teaches elementary students about water quality.

In the photo above, a student from College Hill independently taught the water quality station, earning credit for her senior project. We work in close partnership with watershed council staff in Linn County who lead field trips for Linn schools. Coordinating this effort is draining, powerful, and uplifting. I’m grateful Benton SWCD is able to continue to offer this program to students of Benton County, and hope educational efforts like Salmon Watch lead to well-informed adults who make decisions that improve freshwater and marine conditions and the plight of the Pacific salmon.

The trail at Clemens Park, where we hold Salmon Watch field trips each fall.
A College Hill student teaches elementary students about water quality.

Personal Communications with Luke Whitman and Karen Hans of ODFW, 11/22/19

About the Author

Heath Keirstead

Heath Keirstead manages Benton SWCD’s Communications and Community Engagement as well as the Native Plant Program and Youth Education. She has a Master’s in Soil Science from Oregon State University. With a dual passion for people and the planet, she loves building relationships with partners, customers, volunteers, and students.

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