It’s been called the “Year of the Salmon” by fishermen and fishery managers alike as Oregon’s estuaries and rivers fill with a stampede of coho and chinook salmon. At Trask Hatchery, the salmon return is off the charts and the largest in memory, according to ODFW Hatchery Manager Jim Skaar. “We are close to 3,000 more coho than we usually get back at this time of year and it seems like it’s a run that never ends. Each time we come down to work the trap there’s more fish.”
In fact so many salmon have returned to the hatchery that the four-man state crew needed help, so the Tillamook Anglers Association , a group some call the “Salmon Saviors,” stepped in and volunteered to help. “We have a phone tree that I use whenever there’s an all-hands-on-deck need,” said Jerry Dove, the organization’s President and Founder. “I have a list of the ones who like to show up and we just go to work.”
More than twenty volunteers showed up on a cold and wet October morning to sort and carry thousands of salmon to varied holding areas for later spawning. The members also assist with the spawning and the spreading of surplus salmon carcasses into local streams – part of an Enhancement Project that puts the fish nutrients back into the river system.
Dove added that the group’s most rewarding job is to make certain that the bounty of surplus, food-quality salmon isn’t wasted either. “There are thousands of really fine salmon here that would just die at the hatchery! The hatchery crew doesn’t have time or energy to deal with them, so we step in and do that for them and for the county’s neediest citizens.”
The best fish that are not needed for the hatchery’s production goals are transported to Dove’s mini-processing plant in Tillamook. Here, even more volunteers cut up the fish, bag the filets and seal them for the freezer. Dove also saves the carcasses that are sold through local vendors as crab bait. They cure and pack the salmon eggs in jars and sell them to fishermen. “We were just throwing the eggs away and I thought there must be value here, so we sought permission from the state to sell the eggs – and all of the money goes back into our programs.”
This year, the Salmon Saviors delivered more than 5,000 pounds of filets to the local chapter of the Oregon Food Bank. Longtime member Tom Stumpf said that the salmon make a difference to people in need. “The salmon – that we prepare and deliver to the Tillamook Food Bank – is basically the only source of protein for many families.”
In Tillamook County, more than 60 percent of school-aged children are eligible for food assistance, so the volunteers know their efforts help in a uniquely Oregon spirit of neighbors helping neighbors. “Every time one of those packages goes into the Food Bank’s cooler that’s another meal – another meal – another meal,” said Kevin Englund, a retired local school administrator. “Every Oregon community has huge needs but we figured the solution to hunger is simple: we provide for others who would otherwise go without. You find a Jerry Dove in your community and you can make it happen too!”