Remember the guys who went around collecting Christmas trees for salmon back in January?
Well, they finally sunk the trees into some salmon habitat on Saturday.
As wetlands consultant Doug Ray told me months ago, old brown Christmas trees are “like magnets for fish.” They provide cover from predators and fodder for the base of the food chain.
Seaside’s Necanicum River provides valuable habitat for wild coastal coho, Ray said, but in the summer the baby salmon that haven’t left for the ocean yet are vulnerable to predators.
“There’s literature showing high mortality in the summer by water birds: Terns, mergansers, cormorants. We’ve seen them working the upper river. We see juveniles in summer pools and some pretty heavy predation because there’s no cover,” said Ray, who owns property nearby. “The river otters, too, have really easy access to them.”
So, on Saturday a dozen devoted fishermen with the Tualatin Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Rainland Flycasters got together to give the coho some cover. They took 200 donated Christmas trees and another 200 trees they cut from commercial timberland and sunk them into the mainstem Necanicum.
“It was actually pretty exciting,” said Michael Ellis, conservation director of the Tualatin Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “It was something none of us have done before. We were flying by the seat of our pants.”
Before they began, retired Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Walt Weber, also member of the Rainland Flycasters, snorkeled through the project site and counted the fish along a an 80-yard stretch of the river. He saw fewer than two dozen fish.
The team tied trees onto a boom line to hold them together. They strung the line of trees, buoyed with milk cartons, out into the river and let the current carry them downstream to a proper resting place.
“We used the river to place the trees, and that was inspired by beavers,” said Ray. “Beavers don’t place wood. They set the wood down where there’s flow and let the river place it.”
Once the first line of trees were secured, they added more trees to fill the water inside the boom line. The response from fish was immediate.
“Once we started getting trees in the water, we could stand there for five minutes and watch the fish start collecting around them,” said Ellis. “It was like they were waiting for this stuff to show up.”
A couple hours later, adjoining landowner Byron Thompson took an underwater video of the site. He counted 200 fry.
“Usually you do this kind of work and then you wait for years to see if it did any good,” he said. “This was almost an immediate return. That’s really exciting.”
Ray said the surge of fish around the trees was surprising.
“We had Walt do the baseline fish count because wanted to test the biological response,” he said. “The initial conclusion is it was huge. They couldn’t even count them all. Where were the fish? Did he miss them? Where did they come from? We don’t know.”
Thompson plans on taking weekly underwater videos of the site through the summer to monitor fish activity. And Ellis said if all goes well his group is ready to expand its Christmas tree collection project so they can sink some more trees into salmon habitat next year.