On a wet Tuesday morning, members of the Curry County community gathered at Indian Creek Hatchery outside Gold Beach to take part in an annual salmon-spawning ritual.
Every year, salmon return to their place of birth to reproduce after spending the majority of their lifetime in the ocean. The salmon of the Rogue River return near the beginning of October, some swimming up Indian Creek near the mouth of the river and getting caught in the ladders of the Indian Creek Hatchery, which is part of the Salmon Trout Enhancement Program (STEP).
“We’re volunteer-based,” said John Webber, a STEP biologist “these programs are beneficial to the community because we’re putting back fish to supplement a fishery, but we’re also providing a place for the public to understand the history of salmon and salmon management.”
In the coming weeks, salmon are transferred to a brood tank where they are kept until they are ripe for spawning. Once ripe, volunteers help harvest their eggs and milt, which are promptly mixed together, immersed in saltwater and sterilized before being placed in an incubator.
Down in the brood tank, a trio carefully examines and chooses which fish will be harvested. Andrew Wells, an experimental biology aide, runs a net across the bottom of the tank, while Webber and Joan Cooper wait nearby. At age 83, Cooper has been assisting with the salmon spawning for 15 years.
Once Wells snags a fish in the net, he and Webber inspect it to see if it’s ripe. If so, Wells holds it steady while Cooper delivers a hard blow to its head with a wooden club. If the fish is not ripe, it is instead placed in the adjacent tank to be re-examined in a few days or possibly turned loose up river later on.
After identifying the fish as male or female and whether it was wild or hatchery born, Wells hands the fish up to the group of volunteers, who squeeze and gut the fish to extract the milt and eggs. Fish scales are also collected to compare age and measure survival rates of different generations of salmon.
The next part of the process is overseen by volunteer Hassie Taylor, who charts the process on a matrix to keep track of the batch’s biodiversity.
The eggs are then evenly placed in quarter-gallon buckets with eggs from each female filling roughly four buckets. Amniotic fluid is also extracted from the female to be later tested for disease. Milt from the males is added to each bucket, followed by saltwater.
After five minutes, the eggs are moved inside to be drained, sterilized and placed into the incubators. The eggs will later be placed in large tanks near the brooding pool where they will hatch and grow until they are large enough to have their adipose fins clipped, signifying they are hatchery-born.
“When we put them in here they’re probably about 150 fish per pound, and when we release them in late August, they are about 12 fish per pound.” said Dave Barnes, a community volunteer who has helped with the salmon spawning for the last three years.
Once grown, the fish are released into the Rogue River, where they will swim down to the ocean to live for several years before returning.
This year’s salmon spawning will continue every Tuesday until Dec. 11.