Rotten fish enrich river

ASTORIA — Spotted this month: Six men heaving hundreds of dead bodies into Clatsop County's Lewis and Clark River.

OK, so they were dead fish bodies — or what remained of them after six months of storage.

"Liquid with a maggot crust," is how retired state biologist Walt Weber described some of them, as he and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife assistant biologist Troy Laws drove six totes of rotten salmon up the side of Saddle Mountain. "These are the worst we've put in — ever."

Weber and Laws belong to the Rainland Flycasters, a group of fly fishers whose members volunteer every year to sling surplus hatchery fish back into North Coast streams. For each of the last 15 years, they've put up to 60,000 pounds of carcasses back in local rivers to deliver vital nutrients to the ecosystem.

It's a dirty job, and this year it was especially icky. Some of the fish sat out for several days after being collected from Big Creek and Klaskanine hatcheries in September. Then they were frozen, stored and thawed this month for the stream enrichment program.

To empty the most putrid tubs of fish, Laws hitched them with cables to his pickup and pulled away slowly until they tipped off the trailer, falling upside down on the ground and sending rotting fish blood spraying into the air.

Among the pile of maggots and bones were a couple dozen decomposing fish emitting a supremely foul smell.

Flycasters Ernie Palmrose and Bob May closed in on the heap, each armed with a one-pronged pitchfork.

Palmrose stabbed a fish and held the carcass aloft for a few seconds, letting the liquid drip off and waiting for the right moment "to make sure I don't splatter him," he said, pointing to May.

As he flung the fish over a bridge and into the water below, bright red fish eggs sprayed out — along with the maggots.

"The eggs are the most important," said Laws. "They're immediately available to the juveniles."

Big runs of salmon returning to local streams once played a critical role in bringing ocean nutrients back to the land. After spawning, the fish would die and decay, leaving behind food for their babies and a major source of protein for the entire ecosystem. As the runs have dwindled, so has the amount of ocean nutrients coming back to fish-rearing habitat.

"We're putting less than 5 percent of the historic nutrient load back into the lower Columbia River tributaries," Laws said. "Anything that can make use of that body benefits."

In past years, the carcasses have disappeared in a matter of weeks, as raccoons, coyotes, bald eagles — and even robins and deer — eat away at them. Plants and trees can absorb the decomposed nutrients through their roots, so the fish "make their way all through the food chain," Laws said.

Knowing the value of dead fish in the river keeps the fishermen working year after year, through the foul stench; when the first tubs were emptied Feb. 2, they pull up the sheet of plastic they'd laid down and dumped the milky, maggot-laden fish juice into the water with a splash.

"That's the smell that develops on the stream anyway — just not quite as concentrated," said Laws. "We usually don't let it get this bad before we put them out."

The team started about a fifth of the way down the Lewis and Clark River, below the headwaters on Saddle Mountain, and placed several dozen fish at several points throughout the watershed.

This year was the first time ODFW froze all the surplus fish — the ones that didn't go to food banks or to fish buyers — to make the carcass distribution process more efficient. In previous years, when not all the fish were frozen, the group has had to cut the snouts off the hatchery surplus fish before putting them back in the streams so that biologists doing spawning surveys knew that they hadn't spawned naturally.

But this year, all the fish could stay frozen until the spawning surveys were over. Altogether, the flycasters, along with ODFW employees and volunteers from Astoria and Knappa high schools, flung around 50,000 pounds of dead fish into local streams from late January through early February.

Weber is the lucky one when it comes to enriching streams with rotting fish carcasses. He's lost most of his sense of smell.

"That's a September maggot," he said, casually flicking one off his raincoat while work continued along the Lewis and Clark.

The nauseating smell wafting from the thawed fish totes inspired everyone in the group to exchange horror stories.

Laws remembered when he mistakenly left his mouth open during one work party and was unpleasantly surprised when a stray chunk of foul fish flew in and hit the back of his throat.

Weber recalled a time when he and some friends were "horsing around" on the beach of the Columbia River while waiting for summer steelhead to bite.

One guy threw a rotten lamprey at another, and it wrapped itself around the other guy's neck.

"It was in about the same condition these are," Weber said.

Alex Pajunas, photographer for The Daily Astorian, said the worst smell for him came along with an assignment to photograph the truckload of fish waste that overturned and spilled out into the Astoria roundabout on a 90-degree day a couple years ago.

But Rainland Flycasters President David Johnson, who worked for many years as a plumber, said nothing compares with the smell of digging up an old cabbage field, which he had to do once for a shopping center development.

"I've never smelled anything like that," he said, "and that's coming from a plumber."

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