Hail to the Underdog - Columbia Land Trust
We’re giving Columbia River chum salmon—aka dog salmon—a fighting chance.

Editor’s note: This article originally ran in our Fall 2014 issue of Fieldbook. We decided to reshare it after members of our staff recently observed chum salmon spawning at our property near the I-205 bridge. 

Chum get a bum rap. Read any story about Oncorhynchus keta, and writers tend to note their troubles: They’re nicknamed the dog salmon. Owing to their low-fat content, they have “low table value.” (Chum even used to be sold as dog food.) Stories of salmon’s jumping prowess don’t apply so well to chum; barriers that Chinook, coho, and steelhead crest with ease can keep chum from moving upstream.

On the Columbia River, the story gets worse: The river’s chum population is one of only two U.S. runs listed as threatened. Once upon a time, around 1.4 million chum returned each year. Since 2007, according to annual surveys by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the estimated number of adults returning the Columbia River has ranged between 3,900 and 18,900. By any measure, these chum are true underdogs.

But Columbia Land Trust is working for the chum’s survival by doing what we do: protecting its habitat. Today, we care for land in all three of the best chum-spawning sites that remain. “We’ve conserved places directly threatened by development or other uses. That saves key spawning grounds,” says Stewardship Director Ian Sinks.

If you were asked to imagine prime salmon habitat, you would most likely think of a cold, glacier-fed waterway replete with deep pools and braided channels. But Sinks is standing on the Columbia River’s banks: The concrete span of the I-205 bridge is so close you can see and hear 18-wheelers barreling past. This seemingly unlikely site is one of two along this stretch of the Columbia River that the WDFW refers to as the “I-205 spawners,” and it counts as chum-spawning heaven.

“What makes this great for chum is what you can’t see,” Sinks says. From the upper slopes, underground springs deliver clear, fresh water over the spawning beds. The water is just a few degrees warmer than the Columbia River during the fall and winter months. Those springs are critically important because they keep spawning beds clean, and chum are notoriously picky. “They like clean gravel with very specific water conditions,” says Sinks.

Todd Hillson, a WDFW biologist who has been studying chum since 2001, explains that because they spawn during colder months (from October through December) the warm water helps their eggs develop more quickly.

Protecting the springs is a key reason we conserved seven acres where Sinks is standing. Right next to this property, you can see what threatened the springs and the chum beds: Steamboat Landing, a planned development of large homes right on the river. Had the Woods family, who owned the land, sold to developers, it would have been ruinous for the chum-spawning beds and a real hit to the Columbia River population.

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Crazy Johnson Creek is about 105 river miles and a world away from I-205, but it also happens to host some of the best and most productive chum-spawning beds in the Lower Columbia River. A tributary of the Grays River in Washington’s Wahkiakum County, Crazy Johnson shares at least one key characteristic with the I-205 spawners: The flow of groundwater helps create the conditions that chum love.

Last November, Columbia Land Trust Conservation Lead Nadia Gardner hiked in during spawning season. “There were hundreds of fish digging into the banks and carcasses littering the shores,” she says. Today, we own 305 acres of river, floodplain, and forested hillside habitat along the Grays River and Crazy Johnson Creek, which helps protect this sensitive chum habitat.

Even with land protection, dog salmon numbers can fluctuate significantly from year to year. Between 2007 and 2009, biologists estimated some 3,000 to 4,000 fish returned to the Grays River to spawn. In 2011 and 2012, more than 10,000 returned. In 2013, the number dropped again to 6,500.

These population fluctuations partly correlate with what’s happening in the ocean, notes Hillson. Just as chum like perfect spawning sites, they like ocean conditions just so: Factors like food availability, ocean temperatures, and coastal upwellings all affect salmon populations.

That’s not to ignore what brought chum to this crisis point: dams, urbanization, logging, and commercial fishing. While logging practices have vastly improved, and chum harvest is illegal, numbers have never rebounded. The fact is that once lost, high-quality spawning and rearing habitat is hard to recover. “It’s critical to protect what small amount remains,” says Sinks.