Sunday, November 13, 2016

Water Greets Land And Brings a Gift

November 14, 2016

As a child I was fascinated by seasonal floods in Amazonia, where rainforest over millions of acres is flooded by many feet of water. Fish swimming among trees in the forest seemed totally bizarre to that child. 

Today I walked the road at Greenhead Slough, where Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, working with local and state partners, recently replaced a tide gate with a bridge, restoring tidal hydrology to several streams and associated floodplains. 

Three Chum salmon in the stream, two to the left, one to the right. All have begun to lose skin, hence the whitish appearance on their sides. 

Tides are very high and low now—a spring tide cycle, which occurs twice each month when the moon is full or new. I saw a near-full moon two days ago. On this full moon cycle, the local floodplains, marshes, and in some cases associated forests, are flooded at each higher high tide every 24 hours. 

Chum salmon came back to their natal streams this season in large numbers. Commercial fishermen caught their quota, and still the salmon kept coming. Last year, refuge stream walkers did not see any chum or coho salmon. This year, chum have returned to all the streams they monitor. Today I saw two streams with chum in them, splashing as they mated and dug out redds to lay eggs. There were dead fish too; I could smell the dead fish as I approached. 

Banana slug and fungi:  which one to eat first?

For the next generation of salmon this is good news:  the bodies of their parents fertilize the streams, tree roots pick up and share nutrients, and animals drag dead salmon off to eat and spread them up slope into the forests. For other salmon species, there is better news:  chum salmon smolt (return to salt water) when they are very small, so they are good food for other salmon species that smolt when larger in size. Seeing many adult chum salmon breeding this fall is a strong indication that other runs of other species will be plentiful four years hence, and their adults will be numerous, large, healthy, and strong. 

Forest underwater:  nutrients, fish, organics surge in with the water across the forest floor.

There was also water among the trees in several areas, taking me back decades in memory to that child, seeing photos of fish swimming among Amazonian trees. Marine anadromous fish not only give us pleasure in fishing for them, livelihood for commercial fishermen, and food for bald eagles, bears, and other animals, they give the forests important nutrients, including calcium, nitrogen, phosphorous, and other minerals. It’s a magnificent sight to see the fish, but the implications that carry forward for future health of both forest and fish runs are also important. When we see a healthy run like this, we see the future of both forest and fish in their presence. 

Rough Skinned Newt walking on a floodplain surface, among deep elk footprints.

The weather was wet, a mild day with light rain, though the wind rose as the hours passed and another storm approached. Rough Skinned Newts and Pacific Banana Slugs were out moving around, well sheltered from the sun by the clouds and rain. Thinking about the movement of nutrients from fish to soil to fungi to trees, I realized that these nutrients reach the slugs too, and any insects that feed on plants or fungi, and also newts. There's a bit of ocean in all of those species in a fish-healthy forest. 

Looking over the highway and across Bear River, salt water floods the marshes and streams from forest edge to forest edge. 

At high tide, there is a large sheet of water from the highway west across Bear River and its associated marshes to the Porter Point peninsula. With dikes gone, with hydrology restored, the winter high tides sweep across the entire landscape, just as they did more than one hundred years ago. Water greets land again, and brings a gift of fish.