Salmon Creek: A Search for the Missing Salmon
In the early 1900s Salmon Creek contained so many fish, children living along the creek would catch the fish out of the water after they had spawned. The children stacked the dead fish along the grassy bank like firewood. One of these children was my father‘s babysitter, E.K.
Now, in the year 2001, Salmon Creek‘s fish population has declined. There are salmon in the creek, but not as many as in the early 1900s. It would be impossible to catch salmon and stack them like firewood as one could a century ago.
This information helped me choose my project. I wanted to find out why the fish population has changed so much over the century, and the possible reasons for the decline in the fish population. In order to determine this, I decided to examine the forest/Salmon Creek ecosystem in my own backyard.The forest is located behind my house. It is about a five-minute walk from my house to the area I‘m working at. Salmon Creek is located in southwest Washington; it travels through Clark County to the Columbia River. I live near the headwaters of Salmon Creek, in Venersborg.
I wanted to find out if the forest‘s ecosystem was healthy because a healthy forest is essential for a healthy stream ecosystem. My plan to examine the forest‘s ecosystem was to pick a spot in the woods and mark off a three-meter by three-meter area. I would then use a wooden grid that was one meter by one meter, divided into 10 cm sections, to accurately count each plant in the three-meter area. I did this to find out if there was a large number of plants and animals (a high level of biodiversity). I transferred my findings to grid paper to show the concentration of the plants. I wanted to do this for two spots in the forest. I also wanted to find species in the creek and determine the water quality.
August 9, 2001: I set out at 12:50 pm into the forest. As I make my way up the trail, I notice the hot, humid air. I get to the first area and start working. I place my grid in the three-meter by three-meter area. I count each plant in the grid and look for insects. I find a daddy long-legs and a green caterpillar. The caterpillar is one and an eighth inches long. It has six regular legs in the front and four suction-cup legs in the back. I decide to take it home to determine the species. At 2:30 I leave the woods.
August 14, 2001: I arrive on the trail at 7 pm. As I walk on the trail I see a white-tailed deer; it has two forked antlers. The silence is abruptly broken by seven cries from a Steller‘s jay. Today is cooler, 77 degrees, and there are a lot of bloodsucking flies landing on me. I leave at 8 pm.
August 15, 2001: At 10:40 am I am still working on Square 1. I hear a Steller‘s jay cry, a crow caw, and a bird chirp in the distance. As I busily work, I hear limbs cracking. I turn around; two white-tailed deer are standing behind me. They are light brown with white tails. They have shiny, dark black eyes and antlers. Their fur looks coarse yet inviting. I return to my work to find a brown caterpillar. I also notice the soil is drier than usual. At 6:40 pm I finish Square 1 (see Figure 19 for percentages of plant species).
I measure a second spot 26 meters south of the first, and mark off another three-meter by three-meter grid; this area is Square 2. When I start to work, I notice that this area has a lot of oxalis, which is different from Square 1, which contains lots of false lily of the valley.
August 20, 2001: I‘m still working on Square 2, and I hear two crows caw in the distance. I notice that the first square had a greater variety of plants. This spot has a lot of one kind of plant and moss. It is amazing to find such a difference between the two squares when they are so close to each other.
August 25, 2001: It is 78 degrees. After two days of rain the soil is very moist and there are many insects out. I discover a banana slug in a soft, moist clump of big shaggy moss. The slug is 7.5 cm long; it‘s shiny yellow with black spots, and it leaves a trail of glistening ooze behind as it slowly crawls away. Behind a piece of decaying wood I find a brownish-red centipede; it is 3 cm long. As I work, above me a Douglas squirrel, with soft fur and tiny eyes that look like flecks of obsidian, rips green pinecones off a fir tree. The squirrel has a pinecone in its paws and is eating out all the seeds. There are parts of pinecones on the ground.
August 26, 2001: The soil is very hard after the warm weather. I notice that the Douglas squirrel ripped a lot of pinecones off the Douglas fir tree. The pinecones are scattered all around. Some of the pinecones have parts of branches on them. Today I see a Steller‘s jay and a white-tailed deer. There are few plants in this section of Square 2. Today I finish Square 2 (see Figure 19 for percentages of plant species).
August 27, 2001: I‘m feeding the two caterpillars; to my surprise, both caterpillars have formed into chrysalides.
September 8, 2001: It‘s 9:10. I awaken to find the brown caterpillar has become a tan moth.
September 9, 2001: To my surprise, the green caterpillars have emerged as black and white moths. I looked in my books but wasn‘t able to find the moths, so I took them to the people at the extension office. Unfortunately, they were unable to identify them. The two moths perished, and I still don‘t know what species they were.
September 22, 2001: I measure from Square 2 down to the creek. Between Square 2 and the creek there are wild cherry trees, vine maples, and a lot of different plants. The area is wet, with very little sunlight. As I make my way down to the creek, I find a clump of mushrooms. These mushrooms are the largest I have ever seen. The area near the creek is rich in plants.
September 25, 2001: The creek is very cold at first, but after a while it seems warm; the water is about 62 degrees. At first it seems like there is nothing in the water. I look around and I find a freshwater mussel that looks more like a small stone. It weighs 0.75 pounds and it is 5.5 cm long; after measuring it I place it back where I found it. I discover three periwinkles on a leaf. I also find a crawdad and some trout. Today I didn‘t catch as much as I wanted to.
September 26, 2001: I start to look for any kind of creature. I find a crawdad that is 10 cm long from head to tail; it weighs one ounce and it has all its parts. I don‘t find anything else; I decide to leave for the day because it has started to rain.
After spending two months in the forest, I have learned that it has many different kinds of plants and animals. When I started counting, I thought that there would be very little variety of plants. I quickly realized this hypothesis was incorrect. In the forest there are false lily of the valley, oxalis, snowberry bushes, hazelnut trees, Douglas firs, trilliums, and much more. Also, when I didn‘t know the name of a plant each time I found a new one, I looked it up.There is a wide variety of animals in the forest. The only thing I knew for certain when I began was that there were deer in the forest. But I found many new animals and insects, such as centipedes, crows, Steller‘s jays, slugs, squirrels, and more. I now know there is a lot more under a piece of moss or on a plant leaf than meets the eye.
By spending time in Salmon Creek I learned that in the creek there are trout, salmon, crawdads, periwinkles, and little worms that glue themselves to a rock and put pebbles around themselves for protection. After examining Salmon Creek near my house, I have concluded that it is healthy because there is a variety of different species in the creek, there are a lot of plants that grow on the bank, the water is clear, there are no dead fish floating in the water, and the creek didn‘t have much algae in the water.
Since Salmon Creek behind my house was healthy, the question of the missing salmon population still remained. I decided to get some data from Clark Public Utilities and see what kind of chemicals are in Salmon Creek. In order to understand their data, I needed to know what the standards for surface waters are. I contacted the State Department of Ecology, and they said to look at Washington Administrative Code 173201A-030 and find the standards for surface waters.
For excellent water, the qualifications are: fecal coliform levels shouldn‘t exceed 100 colonies per 100 milliliters, and no more than 10 percent of all samples can exceed 200 colonies per 100 milliliters. The dissolved oxygen shouldn‘t exceed eight milligrams per liter. The temperature can‘t be higher than 18°C; pH should be within the range of 6.5 to 8.5; and turbidity shall not exceed 5 NTU.
The data from Clark Public Utilities for High Valley, which is one mile from my house, fits in with all of these requirements (Figure 20). I also wanted to compare the creek by my house to a point further down the stream; I chose to look at the junction of Salmon Creek and Mill Creek (which flows behind my grandmother‘s house). The data for chemicals here was very similar to the data at High Valley (Figure 21). The chemicals at both points were within the state‘s requirements.
Next I looked at fecal coliform levels. At High Valley, the levels were low (Figure 22); at the junction of Salmon Creek and Mill Creek, they were high (Figure 23). A little west of that junction is the Cougar Creek junction; there, the fecal coliform levels were extremely high (Figure 24). Mill Creek and Cougar Creek have high fecal levels because they go through farmlands, and livestock go into the creek and deposit feces, causing bacteria to grow. At High Valley the fecal coliform level is low because there are few farms and it‘s close to the headwaters.
One interesting point is that all three sites had high levels in the summer and low levels in the winter. This is because in the summer the water is warm and the bacteria grow better.The data from Clark Public Utilities shows that Salmon Creek is actually very healthy; except for fecal coliform levels, everything was within state limits. I can now see that there are many factors to the missing salmon. Some of these could be that raccoons eat the fish, that dams with turbines cut the fish, that garbage kills the fish because they think it‘s food, and that people eat the fish. These are all reasons why the fish don‘t survive long.
I would like to further my research on Salmon Creek by examining the soil to see if chemicals affect the way the plants grow. I‘d like to find reasons why there are limited salmon populations in the creek, and what‘s killing them. Also, I would like to test other locations along Salmon Creek for the amounts of chemical changes at different locations.This project it has taught me a lot about different animals, plants, and the standards for water. It has been fun and informative, and I plan to continue next year.
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Washington State Department of Ecology. "Chapter 173201A Washington Administrative Code: Water Quality Standards for Surface Waters of the State of Washington." November 18, 1997. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on December 1, 2001: http://www.ecy.wa.gov/biblio/wac173201a.html
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Copyright © 2002 American Museum of Natural History
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Supplement a study of biology or ecology with an activity drawn from this winning student essay.
- Send students to this online article, or print copies of the essay for them to read.
- Have them research the decline of a species in your region, reporting on what they learn.
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