The journey of a lifetime

Droves of salmon are coming home to streams in Kitsap County from their long ocean-bound journey.

How the fish find the way back to their original spawning grounds remains an unexplained mystery. But year after year, they keep coming back to Chico Creek, Clear Creek, Barker Creek, Big Beef Creek and dozens of other waterways to lay their eggs on the rocky stream beds and die.

A crew of fish biologists from local tribes, county employees and volunteers are taking to the streams to count live fish, carcasses and spawning spots.

These spawning spots, known as redds, stand out from the surrounding terrain. A typical redd is a rocky mound created by the female salmon with its tail that is clear of loose sediment and in oxygen-rich swift-flowing water. In the redd, the salmon are born into the world and start their journey downstream to saltwater. The salmon are typically out to sea for three to five years before returning.

The crews, wearing waders and bright orange or green vests, walk along a portion of a given stream. The vests identify the crews, so streamside property owners know who they are, according to Valerie Koehler, a Stream Team specialist with the county Department of Community Development.

The Stream Team is contracted by the Suquamish Fisheries Department to count fish in several streams in Central and South Kitsap. On Friday, Nov. 9, Koehler and two assistants were checking the salmon run on a stretch of Salmonberry Creek in South Kitsap.

They noted any live fish within a half-mile stretch of stream, as well as any redds or carcasses.

“We cut the nose off any carcass we find, put it into a bag and label it,” Koehler said. “That way we can tell if they are a hatchery fish or not.” Hatchery fish are implanted with a coded wire in their snout before they are released into the wild. A scan of the wire identifies where the hatchery fish came from and when it was released.

The snoutless carcasses are left in the stream, where they can decay and add nutrients to the water. The carcasses also serve as food for local wildlife, including black bears, raccoons and eagles.

Walking along and through the stream turned up approximately 35 fish and a equal number of redds.

“Salmon can usually be found protecting their redds,” Koehler said, adding that many of the fish in the stream avoid detection hiding in overhanging vegetation. “We might only see 40 percent of the fish that are actually there.”

The data will be turned in to the Suquamish Tribe, which is tracking the in-stream data as well as catches from commercial and sport fishing to reconstruct the run and provide an overall picture of salmon survival rates.

The best bet for people to see a spawning salmon is from bridges or on public property. Prime spots in Central Kitsap include the Erlands Point Bridge in Chico (Chico Creek), the Clear Creek Trail (Clear Creek), the former Silverdale Water District office in Old Town (Strawberry Creek) or midway up Nels Nelson Road (Barker Creek.)

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