Fish & Wildlife | Ecotrope

How to turn your Christmas tree into salmon habitat

Ecotrope | Dec. 27, 2011 10:34 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:33 p.m.

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Once submerged in water, Christmas trees provide lots of places for microorganisms to grow and attract other critters that baby salmon can eat before they head out to sea.

Once submerged in water, Christmas trees provide lots of places for microorganisms to grow and attract other critters that baby salmon can eat before they head out to sea.

Wetlands restoration expert Doug Ray of Carex Consulting loves old, brown Christmas trees.

In the past four years, they’ve helped him bring 2,000 baby coho salmon into a formerly dry side channel of Seaside’s Necanicum River.

“They’re like magnets for fish,” he said. “The fish will stay under the cover of the branches during the day and come out at night to feed.”

The Pacific Northwest could be using recycled Christmas trees all over the place to help salmon, Ray said. Within days of putting the trees under water, a brown algae starts growing on the needles. Other critters flock to the branches to feed, and a new food web is born.

“They’re covered within a couple of weeks,” said Ray. “It’s like a Chia pet. Just add water.”

“If everyone in Oregon took their Christmas trees and put them into a stream instead of chipping them into mulch, it would be a really valuable gift to salmon.”         - Doug Ray

This year, the Necanicum Watershed Council, Trout Unlimited, the North Coast Land Conservancy and a local Boy Scout troop will be launching a new effort to collect used Christmas trees for fish habitat. The scouts will collect trees at the Seaside Outlet Mall Jan. 7-8 from 10 am to 4 pm for a $4 donation per tree.

At least some of the trees collected will be placed into off-channel habitat restoration sites on the North Coast, where they can provide food and cover for fish and possibly the building blocks for beaver dams.

Christmas trees are attracting coho salmon on side channel of the Necanicum River that had been drained over decades of farming. The channel is full of water, fish and frogs once again after a habitat restoration project.

Christmas trees are attracting coho salmon on side channel of the Necanicum River that had been drained over decades of farming. The channel is full of water, fish and frogs once again after a habitat restoration project.

Melyssa Graeper, coordinator for the Necanicum Watershed Council, said she worried at first about the potential for Christmas trees to introduce invasive species or chemicals into the watershed.

But after talking with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, she learned there isn’t much to worry about. Land-based species living in the trees won’t survive in an aquatic environment, she said, and the benefits of the trees will outweigh the risk of adding trace amounts of pesticides and herbicides to the water.

“We’ll be grading the trees, and anything that looks like a potential hazard will be disposed of at Western Oregon Waste,” she said. “We’ll only use the ones that look like they’ll make the best habitat.”

Ray said he’s been nudging Graeper to do a Christmas tree collection for awhile.

The branches and needles on the trees provide a valuable service for aquatic ecosystems, he said. And it’s a service that isn’t being provided otherwise.

Christmas trees are helping provide protective cover and a base for a new food chain on this a restored channel off the Necanicum River in Seaside.

Christmas trees are helping provide protective cover and a base for a new food chain on this a restored channel off the Necanicum River in Seaside.

“This is a missing element that’s fundamentally critical to supporting salmon,” he said. “A couple hundred Christmas trees might not seem like much, but in the right stream, they become the main biological drivers in the food web process to support salmon. Some dried-up old Christmas tree has exponential importance biologically. There’s no input of that material in the system anymore. You have to put it there.”

A lot of habitat restoration projects are installing logs into streambeds, Ray said. But even those streams are still starved for woody debris.

“If you took all the needles on a noble fir and spread them out, that’s like an acre of surface area – much larger than you’d get from a big log,” he said. “Christmas trees have much more surface area, and they break down more quickly.”

Ray’s been documenting the value of Christmas trees on the Neitzel farm restoration site since 2008, when the economic 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. “Dried-up old Christmas trees are gold for nature.”

Treehugger has reported on how Christmas trees are being used for fish habitat around the country. But do you know anyone else who’s turning Christmas trees into *salmon* habitat? Let me know! If I hear of other tree collection efforts, I’ll post them on the blog.

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