Saving the Unloved Chum Salmon

Dec. 14, 2011 | OPB
Rob Manning


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  • Peter Barber (L) and Scott Bettin at the Hamilton Springs chum habitat improvement project their organizations are working on. Barber is with the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group and Bettin is with the Bonneville Power Administration. credit: Rob Manning
  • A spawned-out chum salmon in a tributary of the Columbia River credit: Rob Manning
  • This before and after comparison shows how the Hamilton Springs project is meant to help chum by ensuring they can interact with fresh water that enters the stream from springs. credit: Lower Columbia Enhancement Group
  • The image to the right illustrates how the Hamilton Springs project is channelized to make this stream chum friendly-- but to keep other salmon, such as coho, moving along so they won't prey on chum. credit: Lower Columbia Enhancement Group
Peter Barber (L) and Scott Bettin at the Hamilton Springs chum habitat improvement project their organizations are working on. Barber is with the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group and Bettin is with the Bonneville Power Administration. | credit: Rob Manning | rollover image for more

Hydropower management, the fishing industry, and billions of dollars in government spending revolve around the fragile plight of Northwest salmon. And plenty has been written about coho, sockeye, and the ever-popular chinook, or “king” salmon. But there’s a green-and-purple oddball that tends to be more popular with biologists than fishermen.

The Columbia River has 13 runs of threatened salmon. There’s a long history of fishing in the basin for Chinook, coho, sockeye, bull trout, steelhead –- 12 of the listed runs. Lucky number 13? Chum salmon.

“You know, they’re called ‘dog salmon,’” says Todd Hillson with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There’s several different ideas on the origin of that name. They are a pretty ugly, toothy critter, when they get back into the freshwater.”

Chum don’t get a lot of attention because they’re not really caught in the river for food. Hillson says chum from the Columbia may not be tasty, but they are pretty.

“If you see them in full spawning colors with the greens, the purples, the reds, going down the sides, they’re a beautiful fish,” he says. “They’ve got this nice olive green to them, and that purple lightning bolt going down the side - nothing else looks like them.”

Maybe the “dog salmon” name comes from their big teeth. Maybe it’s because historically it was dogs who ate Columbia River chum.

But like the chinook, or “king” salmon – or the “silver” coho – “dog salmon” numbers have plummeted.

“Chum salmon used to return to the Columbia in the millions,” Hillson says. “We’re probably down, between all populations, Oregon and Washington side, in most years, we’re somewhere between five-thousand and 75-hundred.”

Like other anadromous fish, chum start out in rivers as juveniles. They swim into the ocean, where they spend up to five years – and return to freshwater to spawn.

Hillson says the chum’s decline could be due to changing conditions in the ocean. But he blames habitat loss, too: “Prime chum salmon habitat is the low ends of the rivers, and that’s also where all the towns are built, the farms are built, and the people are.”

The chum are choosy about where and when they’ll spawn. That explains the chum’s unpopular flavor and its precipitous decline.

On a clear December morning, a few dozen chum are swimming in a channel off Hamilton Creek. It’s a tributary on the Washington side of the Columbia River, near Bonneville Dam.

Peter Barber is with the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group. He’s eager to see how many adult chum are finding the spawning grounds his group helped create here.

Barber points to fish in the channel.

“Those are green ones, there are some more up in here, you can see. They’re really tough to see,” he says.

Biologists describe the chum’s survival strategy as “last in, first out.” “Last in” means they spawn later in the fall than other salmon. And “first out” means the juveniles head out to estuary, on their way to the ocean, really early – often by February.

To make that work, chum need conditions that’ll turn eggs into juveniles quickly.

“Chum like to spawn in areas of upwelling or groundwater seeps. Kind of ties into that ‘last in, first out.’” Hillson says. They’re seeking the warmer groundwater. It gives them an advantage during incubation: the warmer the water, the faster the eggs develop, and they get out and get going.”

Groundwater feeds the two channels that Peter Barber’s group dug here. This is also one of only a handful of places left, where chum have kept coming back to spawn in any numbers.

Barber says it isn’t easy to find places to carry out habitat projects for chum.

“For these types of habitats – a groundwater chum channel doesn’t just appear out of the air, you’ve got to do an initial assessment, looking at ground water levels, placing stand pipes to monitor those groundwater levels,” he explains.

Development has paved over historic streams and channels. Digging new channels can be expensive. Habitat improvements at Hamilton Creek ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A chunk of the money came out of a 40-million dollar salmon fund from the Bonneville Power Administration. BPA fish biologist Scott Bettin is amazed at the results.

“Absolute fantastic success. I mean, using a baseball analogy, this’d be a grand slam. You couldn’t get any better than this,” Bettin says.

Hundreds of adult fish have returned to this brand-new channel to spawn, but biologists haven’t reached a final count yet.

The BPA spends money on salmon habitat projects to offset damage from its hydro system. The dams are more of a problem for other salmon species, because the dog salmon tend to stay below the dams.

Bettin says the hydro system has to make sure there’s enough water lower down. But biologists and hydro managers say it helps both the dams and the fish, if the chum spawn off in side channels like those along Hamilton Creek.

Hillson explains the chum salmon’s survival on their way out: “Fish that are spawning in here have got a two or three time survival advantage just by being here, versus spawning out, even just out in Hamilton Creek itself.”

By the time the fish coming in reach the river inlets of southern Washington, they’re at the very end of their life cycle. They’re even closer to death than other salmon species at this point in their return. This is the “last in” part of the “last in, first out” strategy. And chum experts say that being at death’s door means they’re not great to eat.

“They’re not good food fare by the time they get into freshwater,” Hillson says.

The so-called “dog salmon” are actually caught in the ocean, before they’re past their prime in the river. Hillson says those ocean fish may wind up in the case at your supermarket… under yet another name.

“A lot of the fish that you see in the supermarket are actually chum salmon. They’re just labeled… creatively. They’re a big part of the commercial ocean harvest,” Hillson says.

What are they typically called?

“Keta salmon is what you see it a lot of times labeled,” Hillson answers. “And that’s chum salmon. But they’re perfectly fine out of the ocean.”

The winter chum run is unlikely to draw people with fishing poles on a cold December day. But biologists argue people should still visit places like Hamilton Creek. The water is still and clear– —and fans of the chum suggest they’re one of the easiest salmon to watch as they swim and spawn in the winter.

(This was first reported for

© 2011 OPB
Columbia River chum salmon salmon
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