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Two reasons why the chum salmon run was off this fall

What is it like to grab a salmon with your bare hands and harvest the eggs?

Bellingham Technical College fisheries students learn to grab chum salmon, sort them, and harvest eggs and sperm during the annual spawning take at the school's hatchery on Whatcom Creek in Bellingham, Monday, Nov 27, 2017.
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Bellingham Technical College fisheries students learn to grab chum salmon, sort them, and harvest eggs and sperm during the annual spawning take at the school's hatchery on Whatcom Creek in Bellingham, Monday, Nov 27, 2017.

A sharp decline in chum salmon returns to Whatcom County this year is likely cyclical and isn’t an immediate cause for concern, a Bellingham fisheries scientist said.

“The chum run was really low this year,” said Sara Smith, an instructor in fisheries and aquaculture sciences at Bellingham Technical College.

“We ended up with a third of our expected egg take,” Smith said. She teaches students who are gathering eggs and sperm from salmon on Whatcom Creek at Maritime Heritage Park.

BTC’s Whatcom Creek hatchery counted only 1,378 fish returning this year, compared to 10,089 fish in 2016, Smith said. She said the hatchery’s egg take goal was 2.5 million, but researchers took only 834,750 eggs this year.

The return of the iconic fall fish – the most abundant wild salmon species in Washington state – was so bad countywide that state fisheries officials on Sunday closed to chum fishing the main stem of the Nooksack River, from Deming downstream to the Lummi Indian Reservation. Both the Nooksack Tribe and Lummi Nation said they also will close their chum fisheries on the river.

Smith said that chum – known for their easily identifiable calico spawning coloration – are the most common salmon in the lower reaches of Whatcom County rivers and streams.

Grown fish return from the open ocean every year in late fall to the streams where they were born. There, they swim upstream to spawn and die.

“It looks like a really drastic decline but salmon runs are naturally highly variable from year to year,” she said. “It’s not a dire situation, but it was pretty darn low.”

Smith said it was difficult to cite a reason for this year’s decline, but she said that she and other scientists think a likely cause is the “warm blob” of Pacific Ocean water off the Western Washington, Canadian and Alaskan coastlines.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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