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Summer chum making a comeback thanks to volunteers

Shelton-Mason County Journal of Shelton, Washington

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Pouring rain and muddy trails didn't stop volunteers for the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, who braved the weather for hours last week to complete training as part of a project that's saving a once-threatened local fish.

The Summer Chum Conservation Initiative has been in place on the Union and Tahuya rivers for the past 15 years.

The Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group, with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, have reintroduced summer chum salmon to rivers, bringing their numbers from single digits up to more than 1,000 by releasing hatchery-bred chum into the wild each year.

"It started out that we were only getting two or so of the summer chum back each year," said Clayton David, salmon and steelhead biologist for Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group. "But slowly, we started to see more and more coming back each year. Now, we're getting hundreds coming back each year."

This year, the groups in charge of the project will start to see just how successful their efforts have been, as this will be the first time that no hatchery-spawned fish will be released into the rivers.

Instead, they hope to count more wild-spawned fish, and less hatchery-spawned fish, which are identified by a metal chip in their heads and a clipped adipose fin.

The summer chum lives between four to five years in the wild, so by 2020, the chum in the river should all be wild, according to David.


Summer chum salmon are useless to anglers. Chum aren't good to eat and were considered an annoying byproduct of commercial fishing expeditions from the 1970s though the '90s. When chum were harvested with the more delicious fish, companies disposed of the "useless" fish, causing a drastic decline in their numbers.

"In the '90s, the chum were not doing well and no one cared," David said. "But Fish and Wildlife saw the writing on the wall and knew something had to change."

Chum travel back and forth to the saltwater several times during their lives. Because they bring nutrients only found in saltwater into the rivers, the chum salmon are a vital part of the Tahuya and Union river ecosystems.

However, by the time Fish and Wildlife realized the important role they play, there were few wild chum left. By the late 1990s, chum were extirpated, considered extinct in the area.

Instead of seeing hundreds of chum in local rivers each year, there were often only two or three recorded.

In 1999, summer chum salmon in in Hood Canal and the Strait of Juan de Fuca were listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In an effort to bring the chum back, the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group partnered with Fish and Wildlife in 2000 to supplement the summer chum run, founding the Summer Chum Conservation Initiative.

The project is funded by grants through Fish and Wildlife, and by independent donations to the Salmon Enhancement Group.


A large, rust-colored gate stretches across the mouth of the Union River next to state Route 300. At one end of the gate, a trap catches summer chum salmon on their journey back upstream to spawn.

Every hour of every day, from mid-August to mid-October, a rotating group of volunteers watches the trap, carefully counting each chum that is caught — and released — on the river. In total, more than 1,400 volunteer hours are worked during the three months.

"I started doing this as something to do with my kids," said Neal Baker, who has volunteered on the project for the past six years. "It's a good way to learn about the fish, and interact with them without actually fishing or hurting them."

Baker attended a volunteer training session Aug. 14 as a refresher course on how to identify, count and release the summer chum salmon.

David said he started as a volunteer in 2006, but grew so passionate about the project that he went back to school for an environmental science degree to work for the Salmon Enhancement Group.

"This is a wonderful place to work," David said. "It really is my dream job." The volunteer project is two-fold in addition to tallying the number of chum in the river each year, volunteers are also available to answer questions for curious passersby on state Route 300.

"People honk or they stop and talk," Baker said. "They want to know what we're doing out here."

Baker said because the trap site is right off the highway, many people will pull over out of curiosity.

"Volunteers really are our voices," David said. "It was an unintended partnership, but it works."

Between 25 and 30 people volunteer to fill four-hour slots throughout the three-month period. Many of these volunteers are regulars who have come back year after year to be involved in the project, David said.

"It's community building," said Anne Belson, an intern on the project from The Evergreen State College. This is Belson's second internship through the Salmon Enhancement Group.

"It's a really cool group of people and you actually get to learn a lot," she said. "It's very hands-on."

The project is still in need of volunteers to fill slots this year. For more information or to volunteer, call the center at 275-3575 or visit online at

In the '90s, the chum were not doing well and no one oared."

Clayton David, salmon and steelhead biologist for Hood Canal Salmon

Enhancement Group

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Original Publication Date: August 27, 2015

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