A record number of pink salmon are making their way up the Dungeness River — perhaps the most in 30 to 40 years.
Powell Jones, the director of the Dungeness River Audubon Center, says the bumper crop is the result of a number of factors, not least another record-breaking invasion in 2011.
The pinks, also known as “humpies,” are every-two-year fish.
The 2011 spawning season brought in remarkable numbers, followed by near-perfect conditions, Jones said.
Most importantly, there was no “flood event” that year, providing the eggs with a peaceful place in which to hatch.
A flood event, which means 3,000 cubic feet per second or more, turns the river into a “very violent” place, Jones said, tearing up the sand and gravel beds where the eggs are developing.
Ocean conditions have to be just right, too, he said.
There are essentially two different runs of pinks, said Scott Williams, a fish hatchery specialist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Dungeness Fish Hatchery. The current batch likes to travel farther upriver, which means they’re more difficult to spot without taking a trip into the upper reaches of the Dungeness. In coming weeks the next run will be entering the river. They prefer to spawn in the lower portions.
Jones said opportunities to view the fish at the Railroad Bridge Park should be better every day for the next few weeks.
Jones said the “humpies,” as they’re popularly called, aren’t particularly prized among fishermen, but that they serve several very important purposes.
For one, he said, they provide a major draw for tourists. Most of the salmon in the river, including the cohos and chinook, nest in small groups of perhaps two or three fish. Pinks might gather in groups of 30 to 40, providing a better spectacle.
They also provide vast amounts of protein for the wildlife that rely on the river, including eagles and bear. “They really prosper,” Jones said.
Scott Chitwood, natural resources manager for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, said the forecasts for the 2013 pink salmon return to all Puget Sound rivers was pegged about 5 to 6 million.
He said the tribe estimated the return in the Dungeness somewhere in the 30,000 to 40,000 range.
The good news is that the numbers are much, much better. “To date,” Chitwood said, “spawning ground surveyors have counted over 100,000 in the Dungeness.”
That’s a lot, but it’s still fewer than the historical numbers. “In the 1960s there would be as many as 400,000,” Jones said.
Reach Mark Couhig at firstname.lastname@example.org.