Each fall, big salmon overcome huge barriers to continue their cycle of life in Oregon’s coastal rivers, including the dramatic leaping for life at Nehalem Falls on the South Fork of the Nehalem River. But at nearby Waterhouse Falls on the North Fork of the Nehelam River, the salmon’s upriver journey is briefly interrupted.
It happens inside a concrete fish ladder built into the side of a cliff adjacent to the powerful surging falls. The ladder offers salmon an easier route for passage and it is a good spot to set a trap; it’s also where an ODFW crew intercepts the fish each fall.
The big and brawny wild chinook are caught in the trap; the fish are tagged, measured and then released to swim to upriver spawning grounds. But according to state fishery biologist, Derek Wiley, it’s a different story for the hatchery-born coho salmon.
“We don’t want their genetics mixing with the wild fish, so all hatchery fish that we catch are killed and they go into ice filled totes and then they are taken to the local food bank.”
The project owes thanks to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, who provides surplus hatchery coho salmon to Tillamook County volunteers to make sure that local children and others will have a meal.
Volunteer organizer for the project Mike Ehlen says ODFW makes it possible for hundreds of local school kids: “It is all local fish and the best possible protein you can get. Plus, it’s our own salmon and that helps all the way across the community.”
The fish are transported by volunteers to Tillamook Bay Boat House in Garibaldi, where they are processed and canned. Owner Darus Peake provides the labor force that cleans, cuts and cooks the raw salmon. He said that canning the fresh salmon is preferred because it gives the product a longer shelf life and that’s important.
“We have so many children in Oregon who need food year round,” said Peake. “We have the ability and the opportunity to provide something lasting for our kids. That’s why we’re here!”
The kids who live in Tillamook County also lend a hand. Each of the 20 students enrolled in Steve Albrechtsen’s Basic Photography class at Neah-Kah-Nie High School in Tillamook County design a can label for the project. The students then select the winner from the entries. The students also glue the labels on all 8,000 of the cans. It’s not just salmon either. The project also includes sport-caught tuna fish that’s been donated by local sport fishermen.
Albrechtsen said that hunger is not a topic that many kids talk about, so the project is a good introduction to the real problems their communities face each day: “I think they’re all a bit shocked of how needy our community is and some of the students are quiet about it because many know their families are recipients. But they also learn that it’s their duty to step up and help other if they can.”
Local project coordinator, Bill Campbell added, “The students help provide hundreds of cases of canned fish that aren’t for sale, but are given away to schools and local food banks. It’s something they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
The canned salmon and tuna provide critical protein for people who don’t have enough to eat and the project reflects a unique Oregon spirit that finds neighbors helping neighbors through tough times.