The undervalued fish will do absolutely anything it can to get upstream. The life-and-death journey is the survival specialty of the tiger-striped, snaggletoothed spawning chum.
SUBTLETY IS NOT its strong suit. When a brawny chum salmon, free swimming somewhere in the North Pacific, gets a signal from somewhere deep within the gravel of its DNA that it’s time to turn tail toward Seattle to spawn, woe be upon any impediment that might stand in its way.
Possible barriers include nets, lines, busted road culverts, raw sewage (thanks, Victoria!), livestock, flood debris, floating lawn furniture — or even a passing car. The fish’s propensity to keep calm and swim on creates an annual spectacle in the flooded Skokomish Valley on the Olympic Peninsula, where chum often are seen crossing between pickup trucks in several inches of water coursing over asphalt.
Why? To get to the other side, of course. That’s upstream, and getting upstream is the survival specialty of the tiger-striped, snaggletoothed spawning chum.
Their reproductive urge is staggering: Chums in the Yukon River swim 3,200 miles upriver to do the deed. Even in the Puget Sound region, where the fish tend to spawn low in rivers and creeks, the “dog” salmon shows awe-inspiring doggedness. Chums left with no other options will attempt to spawn in blackberry-choked ditches, backyards and other unforeseen places.
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This survival drive has allowed Oncorhynchus keta, much like its Pacific Ocean cousins, the chinook, coho, pink and sockeye salmon, to survive eons of changing climates, catastrophic floods and other calamities. But unlike those species, the chum — with a few exceptions — has managed to effectively survive an even-more-deadly natural foe: humans and all our stuff.
The underdog chum now is the most-plentiful species remaining in Northwest waters. In the late 1990s, while classifying other, more-prized, Puget Sound salmon as endangered, the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that local chum runs were at or near historic levels. In a good year, more than 2 million chum (about 70 percent of them wild) return to state streams every fall. About a half-million of these, on average, are intercepted by Puget Sound commercial netters, a few by sport anglers. The rest start the cycle all over again.
Yet the scrappy chum has long been scorned by Northwest settlers. Sport fishermen typically encounter the fish in fresh water, in spawning mode, when its flesh is soft, pale and lacking in rich oils. Consumers, especially longtime residents, have been trained to turn up their noses.
“It’s cultural,” concludes lifelong Seattle gill-netter Pete Knutson, who daylights as an anthropology professor. In the Northwest, “We have a certain snob segment — you know, yuppies, or . . . I hate to say people from Bellevue, but . . . they’ll say: ‘I wouldn’t eat anything but a king!’
“I’ll be selling fresh chum (at a local farmers market) and they’ll come up and say, ‘Is that Copper River?’ I just say, ‘Yeah, man. It’s all Copper River.’ ”
THESE DAYS, Knutson can afford to laugh about the marketing bravado that turned chinook and sockeye from Alaska’s vaunted Copper River into a fresh-delivered, premium product sometimes commanding 20 bucks a pound. He and some partners are now applying some of the same handling techniques for the lowly chum, which once sold for pennies a pound. The long-tarnished image is getting a spit-shine.
The chum’s nickname, “dog” salmon, comes from legends of Native Americans, many of whom hold it sacred. It also aptly describes the male chum’s sharp canine teeth when spawning — and its traditional perch on the bottom rung in terms of commercial value. But the chum, it turns out, is much less of a dog when brought fresh to the table, or converted to inventive salmon products. Local demand for this blue-collar fish, now rebranded under its species name, “keta,” is on the rise, says Knutson, who sells at local markets and on his family’s website, LokiFish.com.
This, coupled with a concurrent, recent demand for chum roe, raises a troubling question: Could the relative survival success of the chum salmon turn out to be its undoing? Given the endangered fate of its cousins, the chum’s resilience in the face of human encroachment — and its own survival prospects — deserve a closer look.
Chum salmon, 6 to 20 pounds of muscle, grit and staying power, range the entire Pacific Ocean. They spawn in U.S. streams from California to the Arctic. When they spawn is as critical as where: Fall chums migrate homeward in November and December, when winter rains swell Puget Sound and coastal rivers, providing reliable, safe passage.
They will swim upstream as far as needed to reach gravel, from which several hundred eggs laid by females will hatch in about four months. Significantly, unlike other salmon, tiny chum fry don’t dawdle: they head straight downstream for the salt, schooling up in estuaries to feed and grow. Chum thus have survived in greater numbers, biologists believe, by being less-reliant on undamaged upstream spawning habitat.
Once in the ocean, they migrate north, spending three or four years in or around the Gulf of Alaska before returning to their natal streams. Here, the chum thrives in some Puget Sound river systems, but struggles in others. And the reasons for success or failure are not entirely clear.
THE FALL chum Knutson and his partners net and dress onboard their boats come from Puget Sound waters within sight of the Space Needle. Most of these fish are bound for South Puget Sound streams, where chum runs, with some exceptions, are healthy.
Some of the largest schools migrate to Hood Canal, where runs are heavily supplemented by hatcheries. The winter of 2012-2013 saw the largest Hood Canal chum run in history, with an estimated 1.3 million fish doubling traditional returns.
“That caught us all off-guard,” admits Aaron Dufault, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife analyst.
The picture is cloudier in North Puget Sound, where traditionally healthy chum stock in the Snohomish, Stillaguamish and Skagit river systems have plunged to dangerously low levels the past decade, precluding commercial harvest almost completely. The Skagit, for example, produced 406,000 chum in 2002, but only 59,000 a decade later.
Theories abound. Landslides and other river obstacles present obvious problems. But the dramatic plunge on the Skagit, where spawning conditions haven’t changed dramatically in recent years, remains a puzzle. Further, there seems little correlation between the struggles of chum there and the relative health of other salmon species.
“They kind of all seem to do their own thing,” Dufault says. “We don’t have any solid answers exactly why certain species are doing well and others are not.”
Species competition is a variable — but in counterintuitive ways. Chum are as much as four times more plentiful in rivers such as the Skagit during odd-numbered years, when pink salmon are present. The suspicion is that nutrients from abundant, spawned pink salmon benefit chum fry. Yet this even/odd effect is barely noticed in South Sound streams.
Compounding the mystery is the fact that chum in rivers a short distance to the north, such as the Nooksack, flowing from Mount Baker, have remained largely healthy, allowing a small nontribal and large-scale tribal harvest every fall.
A few other specific strains, meanwhile, have spiraled perilously downward. Fall chum in lower Columbia tributaries were listed as threatened by the federal government in 1990; a rare summer run in Hood Canal was listed as endangered. The species in some small streams there was “functionally extinct,” largely due to bycatch in commercial coho fisheries, Dufault says.
Those summer chum have rebounded significantly since curbs were placed on commercial netting. The fish’s recovery provides ammunition for those who argue that harvest rates are the greatest single factor in chum survival: Habitat in that area, much of it on undeveloped, or long-ago logged, public land, hasn’t changed dramatically.
THE FUTURE for this fish, in contrast to its relatives, is guardedly bright. With a little luck, in fact, the Northwest chum could be the fish that proves wrong the pessimistic theory that thriving wild salmon and large-scale human habitation are simply incompatible.
Biologists believe the chum’s get-out-of-town-fast approach to spawning is a survival instinct that increases its survival odds even in human-fouled streams that no longer produce healthy wild chinook or coho. The species also has proved ideal for hatchery programs: The chum’s quick turnaround between hatching and release means it is less expensive to produce.
The state and treaty tribes run most of these programs. But a unique public chum hatchery has thrived for decades at the mouth of Whatcom Creek in downtown Bellingham. Here, early December visitors will find several dozen of program director Earl Steele’s chest-wadered students scooping the last of the fall chum from a hatchery holding pond. As the fish are tossed to waiting arms above, they’re snagged from the air by other students, who call out “male!” or “female!” to a scorekeeper working a clicker counter.
Fish captured live make an additional stop — their last — at a sawhorse-type platform where a shortened aluminum baseball bat dispatches wriggling chums to that great spawning ground in the sky, via a clean blow to the skull.
The Bellingham Technical College hatchery program has been run by Steele for 36 years, creating a pocket industry for a fleet of about 30 Bellingham Bay commercial netters. Its public benefits are less obvious, but plentiful.
Fish that die in the holding pond are composted. Those freshly killed and stripped of eggs and milt for hatchery use are trucked to local fish processors for sale or donation to food banks. Scale samples are sent to the state for genetic recording. Excess eggs are given to local spawning projects or a chum program of the nearby Lummi Nation.
“Nothing goes to waste here,” says Steele, who grew up across the bay on what is now Taylor Shellfish Farms.
Steele’s aquatics trade program also produces the bulk of technicians who work at the region’s hatcheries, and fish and seafood farms. The job-placement rate is nearly 90 percent. Steele and his students credit the chum for their very livelihood.
THAT LITTLE hatchery, which this year counted about 14,000 returning chum, also presents one of the state’s most-colorful sport fisheries, with dozens of anglers lined up along a creekside concrete wall for the chance to snag an ornery chum via line and reel.
“Snag” is an apt term: many fish caught in this shoulder-to-shoulder melee are foul-hooked, often on the back or belly, which creates chaos when an angler trying to horse one in fouls the lines of competing anglers. Fish hooked in the mouth are usually retained; snagged fish are scooped up with a net and dropped, alive, into a drain pipe filled with running water, which jets them into the hatchery holding pond.
This Thanksgiving-time urban spectacle ranks as the most-productive freshwater chum sport fishery in a state where chum traditionally have not been a popular sport-fishing prey. But that’s been changing. A sport fishery near Hoodsport on Hood Canal creates traffic jams. And when the fish are there, chum — a favored fish for smoking — are chased by rain-drenched anglers on a number of Puget Sound rivers.
Commercial competition also has warmed, with gill-netters like Knutson and his oldest son, Jonah, fighting in Olympia — and often in court — for fishing space among larger-scale commercial purse seiners.
That competition will only increase if the once-reviled chum gains market acceptance from consumers. The fish is increasingly popular as comparatively affordable table fare sold fresh and frozen at farmers markets. And the chum is shedding its old pet-food image as it’s transformed into foodstuffs ranging from salmon jerky to “chum hams.” Direct sales to consumers have grown from 2 percent to nearly 20 percent of Knutson’s business over three decades.
Even more valuable are chum eggs, widely sought in Asia and Europe to produce Ikura, a cured-roe delicacy. Puget Sound fish processors in recent years have paid up to $9 a pound for chum roe — far more than for the fish flesh itself. The anomaly has led to reports of commercial harvesters netting chums, stripping their eggs and simply dumping their carcasses.
Many fish, however, are finding their way to food banks; others are even given away. Tribal fishermen in 2013 sold excess netted chums to a local Chevrolet dealership in Bellingham, which handed them to all comers as a parking-lot promotion. Not exactly a noble end for a fish that might be the ultimate Northwest survivor.
Knutson remains optimistic for the species.
“People say it’s a dead industry,” he says. “Well, the fishing (for chum) is better than it was when I started in the ’70s.”
But he keeps a wary eye on annual catch reports, noting that state fisheries managers don’t exactly have the best track record at keeping harvest levels a safe distance from the extinction line. A large modern purse seiner, Knutson says, can swoop in and pick up an entire run in one catch.
The chum, he believes, is “more resilient than others, yes. But I think it’s been hammered pretty hard. There’s definitely more pressure on the fish now than 15 years ago.”
Translation: Treasure this fish as an old-soul survivor, a gift from the Salish Sea. But don’t forget its intrinsic value in spawning gravel, as well as on the dinner table. If humans can let it do what it does best, the chum might prove to be the one Northwest salmon whose best days still await, somewhere upstream.
And if this fish knows anything, it is the way to that place.