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Record Run of Pinks Is Thrilling and Confusing

Chris Davis is the Puget Sound Conservation Director. He oversees our efforts to help restore the nation’s second largest estuary. His work focuses on working with partners and stakeholders to facilitate regional recovery of Puget Sound health through floodplains and marine restoration.

By Chris Davis

This is the time of year when I like to think pink. The Northwest sunset in early autumn is often a tangerine-pink glow silhouetted by the Olympic Mountains; and though some colleagues mock me, pink wine, say from the southern Rhone Valley, is frankly, an incomparable companion while we relish the last warm evenings of summer before the rains come.

But this year, as it does every second year, pink also means humpies: Pink salmon, that most unusual of our native fish. In Puget Sound, the pinks return to our rivers only in odd years, a life history quirk that makes them unique among their ocean-going brethren.

And oh, how they’re returning—it’s not quite a Carl Sagan moment (Billions! And Billions!) but it seems like it. In the Nisqually, more than 700,000 fish have come up the river in the last couple of weeks. They’re so numerous they’re jamming up the fish weirs used by the Nisqually Tribe to intercept and sort hatchery fish; fishers on the much smaller Dungeness River look back to the days when Eisenhower was in office to recall a year when more than 20,000 or 30,000 arrived. As of mid-September they’re at 100,000 and still climbing.

For decades, most of our rivers played host to only a few small runs; then, about 10 years ago, the pink runs started increasing. Now they’re skyrocketing. In the Green River, which is known as the Duwamish in its lower reaches where it flows between leveed channels, past industrial South Seattle, Boeing’s airfield and eventually through the Port of Seattle, pinks are colonizing a river they never inhabited prior to a decade ago. Over the last five weeks, across Puget Sound, more than 6 million pinks have been flooding the beaches and rivers, bringing out anglers and commercial fishermen in droves to seize this brief opportunity.  

What’s happening out there?

Salmon might be one of the most thoroughly studied creatures in the animal kingdom. We tag them with sensors to learn where they go; we extract their ear bones because they tell us how they divide their time between salt and freshwater; we clip one small fin from each of millions of hatchery fish so that anglers can distinguish them from the wild fish which must be released.

Yet when a record run of fish unexpectedly washes across the Sound like the rising floodwaters of a month long Nor’wester, there’s little consensus about how to explain it.

Here’s what we know. Pinks spend far less time in rivers, moving quickly as tiny fry to the salt water where they grow fast. Are they benefitting from less exposure to the pollution, predators and other hazards they face in the region’s many rivers? They also have a unique diet among the salmonids, preferring zooplankton and marine crustaceans over the herring or smelt consumed by chinook and coho. Perhaps it was a good couple years for zooplankton in the Pacific? Some of the anglers think the waters of the Sound are heating up; the pinks are responding by swimming deeper where food is more plentiful and risks fewer. Theories are only slightly less numerous than fish.

In any case, the upsides are clear. Seattle-based boats catch most of the pink salmon up the Northwest Coast in a fishery that will likely generate more than $200 million in revenue this season. And the ecosystem benefits too: at an average of 3 to 5 pounds each, 6.2 million fish return tons of marine nutrients upland where they fertilize streambanks and forests. And the tiny fry that emerge next spring from all of these spawners will be great prey for trout, steelhead and salmon looking to beef up before they begin their own migration.

Still, the mystery of the exploding runs of Pink salmon in Puget Sound also poses troubling questions. Coho and chinook salmon, the big, elegant species that comprise the high value fishery, remain in decline throughout the region. Those that stay in Puget Sound rather than migrating to the Pacific become too contaminated to consume in large numbers. These conflicting data are precisely what makes it challenging to do conservation in a big, urbanized area undergoing rapid change.

Meanwhile, most of the folks standing shoulder to shoulder on the beaches and docks of the Sound, casting their gear into the shimmering, clear salt water aren’t looking for an explanation. They’re looking for dinner. This is an urban recreational fishery and it draws a diverse bunch all united by a common goal. Last week I stood on a cobble beach early in the morning. As the light came up, my neighbors, silent, spectral figures I could hear more than see, came into focus. Suddenly the calm water broke, fish leaped clear out of the water; rods began to bend and four or five of us had landed fish in a matter of minutes. That formerly silent beach erupted in a clamor of Russian, Vietnamese and Spanish. The delight, however, was universal.

That night, with the help of a cold rose, and against the backdrop of a sky the color of the flesh on our grill, we celebrated pink.

Go Deeper

Learn how our restoration work at Fisher Slough is benefiting people and salmon in Puget Sound.

Read about the Port Susan Bay estuary, a haven for shorebirds and salmon.

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