Event at Tillamook Forest Center offers look at the lifecycle of native salmon

by: COURTESY PHOTO - Salmon eggs are central to the science that will be part of the Tillamook Forest Centers Salmon Release Walk Saturday and Sunday. Participants of all ages are welcome.Since 1981, thousands of volunteers have assisted Oregon's fisheries in the restoration of salmon, steelhead and trout through the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program (STEP) — a classroom for raising fish.

Four years ago, the Tillamook Forest Center began hatching Chinook salmon eggs of their own in fish tanks viewable to the public, preparing the endangered species to return back to the wild to spawn.

“We wanted to share the salmon life-cycle, how salmon connect the ocean, forest and people, and how the Oregon Department of Forestry manages fish in the Tillamook State Forest with our visitors,” said Denise Berkshire, education and interpretation specialist at the forest center.

Located at the heart of Tillamook Forest off Wilson River Highway near Jones Creek, the educational exhibit center is a place to explore a deeper connection to Oregon's forests and native wildlife.

In October, the Tillamook Forest Center received 500 spring Chinook salmon eggs that have now developed from eggs to fry, young fish, and are ready for release.

The center will host a Salmon Release Walk on Saturday, Nov.17 and Sunday, Nov. 18, where visitors can join faculty members on a short walk to Jones Creek to release small Chinook fry into the stream.

For the past couple months, through the forest center's rearing tank located in the exhibit hall near the front of the building, visitors could look through a window of what really happens in forest streams, where tiny alevins swim around and show off their rapidly shrinking yolk sacs.

In the natural world, salmon eggs lie in gravel at the bottom of streams until their embryos within develop and hatch as yolk-sac or alevins in early spring. Attached to their bellies, the tiny fish carry a sac of egg yolk as food supply.

After the alevins use up their yolk in 12 weeks or more, they become young salmon.

At the Tillamook Forest Center, staff monitor the fish by calculating their Thermal Units (TUs). Eggs first received have 665 thermal units.

As fry, the fish are ready to be released when they have reached 1650 to 1700 thermal units or have completed their “button up” stage after their yolk sacs are completely absorbed, said Berkshire.

On the Salmon Release Walk, staff transport the fish by bucket to Jones Creek, where as part of the larger migration of salmon up the Wilson River, salmon return to spawn.

All participants in the STEP program, adults and kids alike, are invited along to scoop young fry in paper cups and release the fish into the creek.

“Our visitors seem to appreciate and look forward to this event,” said Berkshire. “Visitors enjoy helping the fish and environment.

“It's just plain fun to give a small fish a home in a wild stream."

Upon their return, the fry will swim up to the surface, gulp air to fill their swim bladders, and feed on small insects before the silvery Chinook salmon head to the sea.

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