How Many Salmon Does A River Otter Eat? (Blog Number 4, October 2018)

Early October, time to watch for spawning activity. The water level has been too low to encourage fish passage up Rocky Brook from the larger Dosewallips River. Still, at night I heard splashing below me (the yurt where I sleep is perched right above Rocky Brook). In the morning I noticed small “clearings” in the tiny gravel and sand. This indicated some kind of spawning activity. They could have been by trout (rainbow or cutthroat) or possibly sculpins. These resident fish tend to spawn under protection of darkness, and at less predictable times. Adult salmon prefer much larger gravel for carving out redds in which to deposit eggs. These might have been made by hatchery fish, as they tend to behave somewhat differently than the wild fish, possibly testing sites. In any case, I could not find the fish responsible for this activity. 

Then, at midday during the second week of October, I heard a great splashing. There, right below me in the deep pool under the yurt deck, I saw an otter. Then another, and to my surprise, three more. It must have been a complete family. 

Two of the five otters checking me out. They soon discovered that I was not a threat and returned to eating their salmon … head first.

I observed the two largest otters surface, each wrestling with its own fish. They began to eat, starting with the head and working down from there. These fish were almost as big as the otters, too big to have been in Rocky Brook at such a low water level. One looked like a five or six pounder, the other slightly smaller. No spawning colors. The Fish and Game biologist who walks Rocky Brook weekly to count fish and redds said that he had seen hatchery coho without spawning colors in the larger Dosewallips, so these might have been coho. 

The other otters joined in, the little family feeding, chattering, grooming and sitting on rocks. This went on for an hour. I surmised that the otters had herded the fish up Rocky Brook where it was much easier to trap them, especially by a coordinated group of experienced hunters. I pay attention to the world around me, I’m pretty sure I would have noticed such large fish.

Later that afternoon the otters were still there; they were eating two more smaller fish. Eventually they left, leaving half eaten carcasses. These were gone by morning, I’m not sure if the otters or some other critter got them. 

Three days later the otters were back. They had two more fish. These were bright red, clearly spawning coho. I could see the clipped fin, indicating that they were hatchery fish, most likely from the nearby Quilcene National Fish Hatchery, located within an adjacent watershed about ten miles away. After the otters left, I watched a smallish coho female. It had been building a nest, most likely paired with one of the fish that the otters had eaten. Now it wandered around aimlessly, swimming from redd site to nearby pools in a wide circle. The next morning, she was gone too. 

By mid October, Rocky Brook was quiet again, save for the resident trout fry. These are being eaten, one by one, by a visiting kingfisher. Luckily there are lots of them and only one bird.

During the third week of the month, I was talking with the Fish and Game biologist during his weekly walk. When I told him about the otters, he said it answered one question he was having. The previous week he had counted eleven redds above me, between the bridge and Rocky Brook Falls, but could not find a single fish (and he is an expert at flushing out and spotting fish). He didn’t doubt that the otters were responsible. 

Somehow since these are hatchery and not wild fish, I feel less animosity towards the otters. Its the wild fish that I really want to see survive (at least long enough to spawn), and the wild fish runs for the last two years have been dismal. But, hatchery fish are better than no fish. And while raised in the nearby hatchery, they do carry genes from the wild population in the Quilcene River. Who knows, these fish might eventually learn to survive and return to Rocky Brook year after year, becoming successful resident salmon, eventually mixing with the native coho. 

The otters were quite curious, though unlike most other wildlife that I get close to, they did not flee.

I looked up river otters in various books that I have, wondering how voracious they are. A frequently cited study in Alaska (1985) determined (through scat analysis) that at least 3300 juvenile salmonids were eaten by 2 adult and 2 young over a six week period. If you do the math, it ends up being almost 20 fish per day per otter. Juveniles in freshwater would have been small, less than six inches. 

A 1990 study in Scotland of otter predation on Atlantic salmon concluded that during spawning season, otters consumed on average one salmon per night, meeting their daily food requirement with this single fish.

And the family of five I observed in Rocky Brook ate four adult fish in one afternoon. This seems about normal, and they didn’t seem to waste anything, except for maybe the  bony tail.

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Rocky Brook, October, 2018 

Word Scramble … What Are These Salmon Protesting? (Answer at end of Blog Number 5)

Salmon In The Garden (Blog Number 2, October 2015)

Rocky Brook

Ruminations

Salmon  In The Garden

As an organic gardener with a keen interest in wild Pacific salmon it seemed natural that I would try to find ways to link the two. Using fish as a garden fertilizer has a long, though probably quite smelly history. Stories abound of Native Americans planting a small fish such as a herring with every corn or bean seed. I can’t imagine doing it though without also attracting bears, raccoons, gulls, ravens and countless other critters. I picture them displacing seeds and upending plants as they unearth the irresistible ripe fish. Still, because fish are such a rich source of nitrogen and phosphorus the results must have convinced them that this was worth the effort. 

Even though I live right next to two anadromous rivers, wild fish are protected. Resident wildlife do a great job of consuming and scattering the spawned out salmon. I am not about to compete with or deprive them. So, buying a commercially produced fish fertilizer seemed like the answer. The obvious choice was a product called “Alaska Fish Fertilizer”. It is organic, natural and readily available; even neighboring Quilcene’s small hardware store carried it. With a name like Alaska, it had to be from wild fish, most likely salmon I thought.

“Ignorance is bliss” as they say. I could have continued to use Alaska Fish Fertilizer, imagining that wild salmon waste was nurturing my lettuces, broccoli, squash and tomato plants. However, a more careful examination of the label gave me reason to pause and question my assumptions. First, in small print it states that “Alaska” is the brand name of Central Garden and Pet Company; it did not necessarily refer to the place. Right below this, in larger print, it says it is “guaranteed” by Lilly Miller Brands of Georgia. ClearIy I needed to dig deeper.

As it turns out, the commonly available product sold as “Alaska Fish Fertilizer” has nothing to do with Alaska nor salmon. It took a bit of searching but I eventually discovered an article by Bill Ginn, “Marketing Coordinator, Alaska Fish Fertilizer”. If you are interested, the complete article is posted on the Rainy Side Gardeners website (rainyside.com/resources/fishfert.html). Here are the main things I learned from it. 

The “fish” in Alaska Fish Fertilizer is virtually all menhaden (small, bony, oily and abundant, harvested in the Atlantic and Caribbean). The menhaden go through a process which separates the very valuable oil (which has the most protein and is used to make fish emulsion fertilizers such as Alaska Fish Fertilizer) from the less valuable solids (which are made into fish meal, animal feeds and other products). 

Processed menhadden fish oil is shipped across the country by rail to Renton, Washington where it is further processed (phosphoric acid added to keep pH low, chemicals to control odors), bottled and distributed to retail stores all over the country.

Salmon, as cannery waste, was part of the recipe fifty years ago when this product was first developed, some of it actually coming from Alaska. This is no longer the case because of high shipping costs, changes in the Alaskan fishing and processing industry, and the fact that it is “VERY” hard to mask the smell of salmon waste. 

While Alaska Fish Fertilizer is not from Alaska, it is “natural” and “organic” (the chemicals added to control pH and odors make up less than 1% of the product and thus it meets organic labeling standards).

Oil based fish fertilizers such as Alaska Fish Fertilizer have a nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratio of 5-1-1 or 5-2-2. Other products have lower ratios and are not organic because they use cheaper materials and processes as well as more than 1% of additional inputs. These products are usually called “amended fish emulsion” or “enzymatic fish emulsion”.

What to do? Is it possible to make the connection between your garden and wild salmon? The answer is a qualified yes. 

While there are numerous fish based fertilizers out there, only three were promising with respect to salmon content. Alaska Fish Bone Fertilizer made in Palmer Alaska is a good product coming from the right place. However, it uses white cod as its base. I would assume it is cod from Alaskan waters, though their website did not state this. 

“Alaska Salmon Fertilizer”, produced by a “team” of people based in Anchorage seemed like a good option. They promote it as “alive” meaning that “beneficial” bacterium (lactobacillus) are added. They have a facebook page (facebook.com/alaskasalmonfertilizer) and a website under development as of this writing. It was not clear how much their product costs nor how to get it. I would guess that the shipping cost alone would make it quite expensive. And the addition of the bacteria makes me wonder why it is added. 

Finally, there is Alaska Bounty Farm in Naknek (on Bristol Bay, North America’s greatest sockeye salmon producing area). They are located right across from the Red Salmon Cannery and thus have easy access to lots of fish and fish byproducts, mostly salmon. They offer four “Alaska fisheries” based products (Liquid Fish Hydrolysate, Fish Bone Compost, Salmon Bone Meal, and Enriched Peat Moss). They have a phone number (520-780-7545) where one can place an order, but again, the shipping costs must be significant. If you are interested, go to their website http://www.alaskabounty.com. 

On the website http://www.salmonproject.org I discovered a page dedicated to old time Alaskan’s gardening advice. It listed local garden clubs and groups throughout the state, where to find gardening know-how for Alaska’s unique climate and soil conditions. Their wisdom emphasized one important point: make do with what was locally available. They usually did not have the option of buying inputs ordered by phone and shipped incredible distances.

So, for me, on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, I continue to look for a somewhat local product which is salmon based for my garden. In the meantime, I continue to use Alaska Fish Fertilizer as the most logical alternative, after all, while the fish may come from the other side of the continent, the product itself comes from relatively nearby. 

And, I welcome suggestions from readers … not everything is on the internet … there just might be exactly what I am looking for nearby, maybe even in Quilcene.

Dennis Lloyd Kuklok

Real Rivers Have Curves (Blog Number 1, Spring 2015)

Rocky Brook Ruminations

Real Rivers Have Curves

I live right next to two rivers. One is the Dosewallips (locals just call it “the Dosey”). It is the only river flowing out of the east side of the Olympic mountains with glacial headwaters. The other is much smaller, somewhere between a stream and a creek. It is called Rocky Brook. Both are anadromous, they support wild salmon populations. 

Living right above the floodplain of these two dynamic natural wonders has made me think about the proverbial “hundred year flood”. It was a term I first learned about at university, studying hydrology and landforms. A 100 year flood is a flood event that has a 1% probability of occurring in a given year. It is also called the 1% flood. These areas can be mapped, creating the “100 year floodplain”, important for building permits, regulations and insurance. Such flood events are expected to happen infrequently, more on a geologic timescale than a human life span.

In looking at my part of the Dosewallips and Rocky Brook landscape, the wide, flat area where the river could rise up to is pretty clear. The question always was not if, but when. This winter I experienced the when. I don’t know if this was the proverbial hundred year flood, maybe the concept needs to be reevaluated with our changing climate and weather patterns. It certainly resulted in the highest water levels I and everyone I talked to around here had seen. 

The reach of Rocky Brook I live by is pretty short, about half a mile. Its upper boundary is defined by a sheer cliff creating 225 ft. Rocky Brook Falls, a spectacular piece of natural architecture. From the falls it has two fairly straight runs; one about a quarter mile through the canyon, due south past the bridge, and then a sharp turn east for another quarter mile where it meets the much larger Dosewallips River. This second reach, from the bridge to the Dosey is my domain. It’s nearly straight course was due to the previous landlord, a logging company owner with access to lots of heavy equipment. He thought that one day this site could be developed into a popular summer RV park and wanted things orderly and predictable. 

The winter of 2015’s back-to-back flood events left this lower stretch changed. Rocky Brook reclaimed an earlier channel and added a beautiful sinuous curve to a parallel existing channel. Instead of one stream, there are now two. Both should be good salmon habitat if there is enough water to maintain them during the critical dry summer months. The new channel (which is really the old original channel before logger landscaping decided otherwise) has excellent gravel size for fish spawning. 

The other, more sinuous reach now has a series of deeper pools where little coho salmon like to hide out. Textbooks say that rivers curve to “release” some of their flooding energy, carving out banks and deep pools on the outside of the curve and creating shallow areas with little beaches on the inside of the curve. This is their natural form. Look at a map of most rivers and you will see some incredible backing and forthing, sometimes almost forming a nearly complete circle. 

The Dosewallips River did the same thing, only on a much grander scale. It too had a pretty straight alignment along my property. It too, added cut banks and rocky beaches as it took on a more sinuous path. It too is becoming more diverse, diversity which translates into good fish habitat.

Of course, all that flooding must have been a challenge for all the alevins (tiny salmon that had just emerged from eggs and were living within the gravel) as well as the year-old salmon fry. I can only imagine how they coped with the increased currents, rolling rocks, and water choked with silt, sand and debris. I’m sure they found little back wash and slack water areas to hunker down in and ride out the storm. Some of the old spawning and hanging out areas are gone, but new ones were created. This is how nature works when we leave her alone. 

All in all, the whole landscape looks a bit raw and unruly. But it also feels renewed, more natural, wilder. And, there is something about the beauty of a curve which is quite pleasing to the eye. My eyes are taking notice. 

Rocky Brook, Spring 2015