The Salmon Project


I used to work with this guy. He had an easy-going manner and was very nice to me when I was just starting out as a veterinarian. We had kids around the same age and met over soccer and baseball fields. So when I ran into him with his wife at a social event I was excited to visit with them and catch up. Beware your friend the veterinarian. Next thing I knew I was sucked into “The Salmon Project”!


The Pacific Chinook Salmon is a fish native to the waters of Merced County. It shares a prominent place in Native Americans’ folklore and was a large part of the diet for tribes along the river tributaries from the Central Valley throughout Northern California and up to the Pacific Northwest. The salmon spawn in the cold waters high in the mountains. Female salmon lay a nest, or redd, each female laying over 3,000 beautiful coral pink eggs. The adult Pacific Chinook salmon die after spawning and become needed food just as winter impends for local bear, Bald Eagles, fox, and other wildlife. The adult fish have travelled from the ocean back to the river of their birth (they come in through the delta, and work their way north or south depending upon specific birth locale). These fish bring valuable nutrients from the ocean which are deposited along the riverbanks of their birth home, greatly enriching the soil. Isotope tracing demonstrates that ocean-based nutrients have been found in diverse crops such as wine grapes grown in the Napa Valley.


You can see the little fish eyes inside their eggs just before they hatch! I know this because California Fish and Game sponsors a classroom project “Salmonids in The Classroom” which teachers and volunteer Science Lab parents can attend. In exchange for listening and learning, you receive 30 salmon eggs in January to hatch, raise and release back into their designated river bed.


It is one thing to sit over a glass of wine under a shade tree with classic rock playing in the background while you discuss the benefits of teaching nature to small children. Save our earth and all that. Your mentor talks enthusiastically of setting little minds on fire with a burning desire to learn more! You imagine yourself as carrying that spark of fire to the cavemen (9 year olds). You can feel the glow from the reflected flames. A second glass of wine and why not? You beg to be included in this adventure. It is quite another thing to physically prepare (during the Holidays!) to mother 30 salmon eggs over 3 months and to safely escort them to rain-swollen rivers where you tearfully, thankfully wave them off and wish them well (except for poor little Grey Goose. Or was it Slushee? You don’t question how the kids knew which of their named 30 eggs didn’t survive).


They required an expensive chiller unit for their tank. Sunlight hurt their eyes. Their gravel had to be boiled free of impurities. We calculated the days until the eggs would hatch (like many another baby, they paid no attention and were tardy by two days) and we danced disco to the awesome You Tube film about the salmon life cycle, with music set to “I Will Survive”. We followed politics – if you voted “Yes” to legalize marijuana it could be argued that high mountain growers wouldn’t divert water to their (illegal) crops, drying up necessary small creek beds that fed the tributaries needed for salmon – too little river water allowed warmer water and the eggs wouldn’t survive; no water, well, then no salmon. We followed newspaper coverage of the Water Wars between ranchers and fisherman, Farmer vs Conservationist. They both had good points. Who is safeguarding YOUR future? Who decides what’s most important? Who survives? We learned about the dams, built long ago, that prevent salmon from attaining the upper reaches of their native range. Watershed, anadromous, Native American history. We talked about extinction.


We learned how the newborn “alevins” live off their yolk sac, which sticks out below like a funny belly. Once they’ve absorbed the sac they are “buttoned-up” and called fry. We taught baby fish to eat. And then it was time to say good-bye. Of the 3,000 eggs laid by one female salmon, 300 are expected to hatch, 100 are expected to make it to the delta as 2 year old smolts, and 50 out to the ocean, from which one or two may return 2-5 years later. They return to the cold waters of their birth in an ever-awesome process of renewal and birth. Thank you, Dr. Jim Correa and the folks of Fish and Game for an amazing life experience.


Christine B. McFadden, DVM

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