It’s salmon time at Carkeek Park.
Chum and coho thrash their way up Piper’s Creek to breed and die, and dozens of humans line up by the creek side to have a look at the action, and maybe cheer as a battered looking fish manages to thrash its way through a rough bit of water.
Mary Vincent is a salmon steward at Carkeek Park. The volunteer salmon stewards come to the creek every fall to educate people about the fish.
Vincent is full of amazing salmon facts. (For example, did you know that spawning salmon only need to have their gills half covered in order to get oxygen?)
She likes to highlight how many plants and animals in west coast forests depend on salmon bringing nutrients from the sea.
“This part of the world is green because of the salmon cycle,” she says.
Most of the chum in the creek started their lives three or four years ago in the care of humans. They either hatched in the Grovers Creek Salmon Hatchery run by the Suquamish Tribe or in aquariums in Seattle elementary schools.
From there, they went to the imprint pond, a structure the size of a large hot-tub on the banks of Venema Creek, which flows into Piper’s creek. They spent two weeks there “learning the water,” Vincent says.
That May, volunteers release them into Venema Creek. Within a few weeks, most were in salt water and on their way to the Gulf of Alaska, more than 1,000 miles away. And now, a few of them are back.
Green with pink stripes
When it’s time for salmon to spawn, the fish transform. The sleek, silvery fish that plied the oceans for years take on earthier colors: a sort of pond-water greenish brown with pink streaks. The males grow a hooked jaw with wicked teeth, that aren’t for eating, but for fighting. The salmon don’t eat once they enter the creek. Their bodies are starting to shut down, so many are missing scales or sporting ugly fungus infections.
Green with pink stripes is not any human’s idea of how to blend into the background, but it is hard to see spawning salmon in light and shadow of the creek.
You might see a fin or a tail poking above the water level, or a flurry of splashes when one tackles a tough bit of river or when two or more males get into a scrap over a female.
A female will select a part of the stream where the rocks on the bottom are just right for her eggs, and she’ll swish with her tail to make a nest, or redd. Males will vie to fertilize them. And they’ll keep at it, guarding their redds for a few days until they die. Then their bodies will stay in the creek and become food for other creatures.
For every 3,000 eggs, an average of one adult salmon comes splashing up the creek.
Death with every storm
The odds are far steeper for salmon that hatch from eggs laid in the creek, because Piper’s Creek, like many urban streams, is often polluted. When it rains water pours off rooftops and streets in two and a half square miles of Northwest Seattle and comes gushing into the creek, bearing silt, oil and poisons.
Just having so much water at the same time is perilous for fish, Vincent says.
“You can just watch the water in the creek rise.”
During an event with a lot of storm runoff, the creek, usually cool and clear, turns gray with silt.
It’s not clear how many chum eggs and young make it through the winter and spring in that situation. It’s even bleaker for coho, which spend longer in the streams as youngsters and are more vulnerable to pollution. But every year, some coho show up. Vincent says they are from other runs and end up at Piper’s creek by mistake. A small run of cutthroat trout also manages to hang on in the creek without hatchery help.
Vincent would like to see a future when Carkeek Park can be a safe place for salmon to thrive.
“It’s everybody’s dream that it’ll be a self-sustaining run again,” she says.
Originally published in 2020 and updated for 2022