By MARK FREEMAN
TRAIL — A tote containing 800 rotten, smelly spring chinook salmon carcasses is pushed by forklift — very daintily — into fish biologist Chuck Fustish’s state-owned pickup Friday to make sure no blood and guts fall into the bed.
“This is called the no muss, no fuss method,’ ” says Fustish, of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It keeps it from messing up your pickup.”
Besides, he’d rather save as much of the slime as possible for today, when nearly 100 individual salmon will get slung into portions of Big Butte Creek, a major Rogue River spawning tributary.
These excess fish — saved at the Cole Rivers Hatchery — are a relatively small part of a major expansion in a program that uses salmon and steelhead carcasses to fertilize upper Rogue tributaries and boost wild fish runs.
After more than a decade of only small use of the so-called “stream enrichment program,” state fish biologists are ramping up the numbers of fish tossed into Rogue basin streams this winter and spring to make up for the loss of marine-derived nutrients flushed annually from West Coast streams.
Hatchery workers are keeping thousands of extra salmon and steelhead carcasses this year, including thousands that would have gone to landfills in other years.
Pushed by a conservation group, this “No Carcass Left Behind” policy has grown out of studies that show carcass placement can put nutrients into streams that were absorbed by salmon in the ocean and carried inland during their spawning runs.
The extra fish tossed into streams will help make up for some of the nutrients lost during a century of declining wild salmon returns.
“We’re giving the whole ecosystem a boost in nutrients,” Fustish says. “It will provide ocean nutrients in fish that would have been here normally. And it’s a lot more of a beneficial use than sending them to the landfill.”
The stepped-up efforts came at the behest of the Rogue Valley Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, whose members were displeased that so many excess Cole Rivers fish ended up in the landfill.
Cole Rivers records show that 44,792 fish ended up in the landfill over the past 11 years, while 105,679 were released alive into streams and just 14,006 carcasses went to the stream-enrichment program.
ODFW biologists agreed to increase the program, and this year up to 19,200 pounds of salmon and steelhead will be recycled into local rivers and creeks. The final total will depend upon how robust winter steelhead returns are this year to the Rogue and Applegate rivers.
“It’s a start,” says Larry Butz, of Medford, vice president of the CCA. “That’s a lot more than we expected, but we can handle it.”
The first of these placements will be today, when CCA volunteers will place the carcasses from Fustish’s truck into stretches of Big Butte Creek, a major spring chinook spawning tributary of the upper Rogue.
CCA volunteers will do other carcass placements into early May to imitate the time frame when salmon or steelhead are spawning and dying in these tributaries, Fustish says.
This year, fish will be tossed into 16 miles of streams in the Butte Creek, Evans Creek and Elk Creek systems in Jackson County as well as nearly five miles of Taylor Creek, a Rogue tributary in Josephine County.
All of the carcasses will be placed high in the systems and in stretches where water-quality testing has shown they do not already contain too many nutrients during fish-spawning months, Fustish says.
They will avoid areas where ODFW survey crews count carcasses, so they won’t skew salmon and steelhead spawning estimates generated by these surveys, he says.
The number of carcasses per stream is determined by Department of Environmental Quality scientists so the streams won’t be overloaded with nutrients.
As they decay, the carcasses will release phosphates, nitrogen and potassium into the waterways in low concentrations and tied to amino acids. The carcasses will be fed on by crayfish and boost everything from zooplankton and phytoplankton to streamside riparian vegetation.
Studies have shown that isotopes of chemicals found in the ocean can be found as much as 200 feet from carcass-fed streams, likely released in the scat of animals feeding on the carcasses.
“It serves as a nutrient source for all of the communities in the streams,” Fustish says.
The nutrient loads added from the carcasses will be far lower than if phosphates and nitrates were added via fertilizers, Fustish says.
When fertilizers from agricultural fields enter streams in runoff, “about the only thing that gets growing is blue-green algae,” he says.
A study by a Southern Oregon University student of Rogue basin streams involved in past stream-enrichment efforts showed small changes to nutrient levels, and it suggested that more carcasses were needed to make a difference.
“We know there are streams that need these nutrients,” Butz says. “Even if it’s just to get people involved, it’s worth doing.”
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.