Why are a bunch of sport fishermen collecting used Christmas trees this year? They're planning to give them to coho salmon by placing them in coastal streams, where the trees provide protection from predators and a food source.
Conservation volunteers with the Tualatin Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited are the focus of the next story in a series about people thinking outside the box about environmental issues.
The group collected 400 Christmas trees last year and proceeded to sink them into a slow-moving section of the Necanicum River on Oregon's North Coast. Within hours, underwater photos and video showed clusters of baby coho swimming around their branches.
"It was pretty apparent the fish were just waiting for that stuff to get in the water," said Michael Ellis, the group's conservation director. "There were little fish flying through the Christmas trees."
Restoring depleted salmon runs is a big, complicated job. But the Trout Unlimited group has found an innovative, hands-on approach to supporting the cause: One donated Christmas tree at a time.
Ellis organizes work parties for Trout Unlimited members who want to help improve fish habitat, part of the group's mission.
A few dozen of the group's 400 members regularly volunteer to do conservation work such as removing invasive plants near streams, planting native species, and helping replace culverts to improve stream flows for fish.
Their new conservation project – collecting Christmas trees and placing them in salmon habitat – is new and pretty unique, but it has the potential to change the way people dispose of their Christmas trees across the Northwest.
"We know historically there was an awful lot of woody debris that ended up in the streams," said Ellis. "It wasn't just logs. It was branches of trees. When one of those big, old Sitka spruces lost a branch, it put a lot of material into the water and a pretty complex biological process started taking place. It was colonized by bacteria utilizing the needles for food. Those in turn started feeding other organisms. Essentially, they were making fish food right there."
With less woody debris in the water today, young salmon have less protection from predators and fewer sources of food. That makes it harder for them to survive the swim downstream to the ocean and back to spawn.
"With Christmas trees, we can recreate historical conditions and give young coho a better chance to get to the ocean and come back and make more fish," Ellis said.
Young salmon are particularly vulnerable to predators in the summer, said Trout Unlimited member and wetlands consultant Doug Ray, who helped find salmon habitat for the donated Christmas trees near his house along the Necanicum.
"We see juveniles in summer pools and some pretty heavy predation because there’s no cover,” said Ray. “The river otters, too, have really easy access to them.”
Ray’s been documenting the value of Christmas trees on one of his company's wetlands restoration projects since 2008, when the recession left a local home and garden store with 150 unsold noble fir trees. The trees were donated to the restoration project, and the following winter Ray’s nighttime surveys revealed baby coho concentrated around the trees. He’s convinced the process can be replicated in similar sites throughout the region.
"If everyone in Oregon took all their Christmas trees and put them into a stream instead of chipping them into mulch, it would be a really valuable gift to salmon," he said. "There’s no input of that material in the system anymore. You have to put it there."
The Tualatin Valley Trout Unlimited group will be collecting Christmas trees again this year from 9 am to 4 pm on Jan. 5, 12 and 19 at two Portland area locations: The Royal Treatment Fly Fishing, 21570 Willamette Dr. in West Linn, and Northwest Fly Fishing Outfitters, 10910 NE Halsey St. in Portland.