Fall Chinook Salmon Run in Olympia - August 27, 2017

As the new school year appears on the horizon each August, another type of school is in session on Budd Inlet in downtown Olympia. From mid-August until mid-September, Deschutes River fall Chinook salmon make their way to the 5th Avenue Bridge in Olympia, where a small dam provides passage into the fresh water of Capitol Lake. Hundreds of fish swim at the base of the dam, getting their last taste of salt water before beginning the final swim up the Deschutes River fish ladder to WDFW hatchery located in Tumwater Falls Park. 

The Chinook salmon run draws crowds of onlookers to the 5th Avenue Bridge's viewing platform. Informational signage and volunteer Salmon Stewards from Thurston County Stream Team provide information about salmon and the annual run. 


Although they are less than three miles from their final destination, the returning salmon still face the obstacle of voracious harbor seals, who work in teams to chase and corral salmon. Some lucky salmon escape with a chunk out of their back. Others become a fine feast for the harbor seals. Gulls, cormorants and other animals stay close to the action in hopes of capturing a morsel or two dropped by the seals.

Skinning and filleting a really fresh salmon!

When the salmon are running, everybody eats!

Recently, a large number of farmed Atlantic salmon were accidentally released from a broken net pen near Washington's Cypress Island in the San Juan Islands. This news event led many people watching the Chinook run in Olympia to ask me, "Are these good fish, or bad fish?" As our conversation went along, I realized that many people don't know the difference between natural spawners, hatchery raised fish, and farm raised. 

Natural Spawning

Natural spawners are salmon who, after spending one or more years in salt water, return to freshwater streams to spawn. These salmon may be true wild salmon, such as the wild chum run at McLane Creek in the Capitol Forest, or hatchery raised fish which have been used to supplement a natural run, such as the chum salmon at Piper's Creek in Seattle

Natural spawners spend their adult life at sea and return to spawn without human intervention. 

In Washington, fishing for most wild salmon and natural spawners is restricted or prohibited to promote restoration of threatened or endangered fish.

Hatchery salmon

Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife runs an extensive salmon fishery program. This program provides salmon for both commercial and recreational harvest. From: http://wdfw.wa.gov/hatcheries/overview.html

Hatcheries have operated in Washington State for more than a century, beginning with one hatchery on the Kalama River in 1895. Originally built to compensate for land use decisions that permanently altered large areas of fish-producing habitat, state hatcheries have since become an important part of the state's economy, releasing millions of fish annually for harvest by recreational and commercial fisheries. Tagging studies indicate that more than 75% of the salmon caught in Puget Sound and 90% of the salmon caught in the Columbia River originate from hatcheries, as do 88% of all steelhead.

One major milestone was the mass marking of virtually all hatchery coho and Chinook salmon released from state hatcheries. Using automatic fin-clipping machines, state hatchery crews mark more than 100-million fish each year for release from state and tribal hatcheries, allowing for easy identification of hatchery salmon on the fishing grounds. Mass-marking laid the foundation for a new era in selective fisheries in which fishers are required to release wild, unmarked fish.

When the Deschutes River Chinook reach the Tumwater Falls facility, the fish will be harvested. Eggs from females and milt from males will be combined to create fertilized eggs. Eggs and young will be cared for at a hatchery until they are ready to be released as smolts. The smolts migrate from freshwater to the sea, where they will spend one to eight years before returning to the Deschutes River to begin the cycle again.

Farm-raised salmon

Unlike hatchery salmon, which are released into the wild, farmed Atlantic salmon spend their adult lives in net enclosures in salt water, much like non-free range cattle spend their lives in pastures and feed lots. The Atlantic salmon are given feed and antibiotics. Farmed salmon do not swim free in the ocean and do not return to streams to spawn.

Open net pens or cages enclose fish such as salmon in offshore coastal areas. Net pens are considered a high-impact aquaculture method because waste from the fish passes freely into the surrounding environment, polluting wild habitat. Farmed fish can also escape and compete with wild fish for natural resources or interbreed with wild fish of the same species, compromising the wild population. Diseases and parasites can also spread to wild fish living near or swimming past net pens.

In conclusion

There are, of course, no good fish or bad fish. It is up to us to demand sustainable, environmentally responsibly raised and harvested fish. One of the best ways of doing this is educating yourself. Head down to Olympia's waterfront and learn more about salmon migration from one of Stream Team's Salmon Stewards. Or, head out to McLane or Kennedy Creek later this fall to see the Salmon Stewards when the native Chum are returning to spawn.

If you can't make it out to see the fish in person, check out Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, where you can learn to make informed decisions about your seafood buying.

To see more photos of the fish at the 5th Avenue Bridge, go to http://www.micheleburton.com/Nature/Chinnok-Salmon-Oly-2017/